Tuesday, August 03, 2004

Indigent care woes.

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has an article in today's paper about cutbacks by Aurora Sinai, a downtown hospital that serves a mostly poor patient population. Bottom line: Sinai isn't making enough money on Medicare and Medicaid patients to offset losses incurred from treating poor patients whose care is paid for by the county's general assistance medical program ("GAMP"). Following back-to-back losses of $24 million last year and $14 million projected for this year -- "[e]ven with staff cutbacks, clinic and ward closures and tougher restrictions on care in Sinai's emergency department" -- the hospital is encouraging its physicians to see fewer GAMP patients, which it hopes will translate into fewer GAMP admissions. A hospital spokesman said, "We are cutting back generally on the population that hurts us the most."

This, of course, is going down like chopped hay in local circles. First, there is the criticism that a tax-exempt hospital darned well ought to be able to provide charity care, which resonates with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who are holding hearings in the House and the Senate on this topic, and is part and parcel of the 31 class-action lawsuits filed this summer against tax-exempt hospitals all over the country. Logically, however, there is nothing about tax-exempt status that precludes crippling financial losses. Put otherwise, is there any reason to believe that a hospital's tax savings are necessarily sufficient to pay for all the uncompensated care some hospitals are geographically and demographically situated to provide?

Then there's the criticism that at the same time Sinai is cutting back on services to GAMP patients it is seeking governmental approvals to build an $85 million 88-bed suburban hospital 3 miles from an existing facility. Of course, excess net operating revenues from the new hospital could offset operating losses at the downtown hospital and allow Sinai to see more GAMP patients, but critics of tax-exempt hospitals often miss the point that you sometimes have to spend money to make money, even in the nonprofit health sector.

For Dallas County residents, this all sounds dizzyingly familiar, right down to the County Commissioners' criticism of Parkland Hospital's plan to building an out-patient surgery center at the corner of Harry Hines and Motor Street. Aurora Sinai's statement that it want "to reinvent itself as a downtown destination hospital. We want a healthy mix of commercial and neighborhood patients" could have been taken from a page out of Parkland's playbook.

The article concludes with some insightful comments:

"[T]he even bigger issue here is that our health care system is broken, and relying on charity care is a weak patch to put on the system. We need political leadership in Milwaukee County and in this state to overhaul our health care system," said [Darcy Haber, health care campaign director of Wisconsin Citizen Action, a consumer advocacy group].

Aurora Sinai's downtown location is the reason it serves so many poor people, said John Whitcomb, director of Sinai's ER department.

"We are the last ones standing downtown. Someone please help us," he said. "The real villain here is an inadequate health care system."

Many hospital admissions are the result of poor patients not receiving primary care, said Bevan Baker, Milwaukee health commissioner. As they get sicker with conditions that could be managed in a primary care setting, they require expensive hospitalization, he said.

"The solutions are not wrapped around Aurora but around an understanding that care should be assessed through the primary care route," Baker said.

posted by tommayo, 8:36 AM

Health care law (including public health law, medical ethics, and life sciences), with digressions into constitutional law, poetry, and other things that matter