Senator hears Whidbey's health concerns
July 3, 2008 · Updated 2:29 PM
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell says shes going to roll up her sleeves and keep fighting an effort to put steps into place to correct the health care situation on Whidbey Island, and elsewhere in Washington state, that some say is approaching a crisis.
The biggest challenge now, Cantwell said, is the devastatingly low Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement rates for home health care, physicians and hospitals. A bill to increase reimbursement rates to health care professionals who have provided care to covered patients has been stymied three times.
Thats the legislation I support, Cantwell said at a public forum Friday. Hopefully, she said, congressional supporters of the bill can get it passed in a lame duck session.
Cantwell, a Democrat, was accompanied by 10th District State House candidate Eron Berg.
Cantwell said she asked Berg to join her at the meeting because, if elected, he will be one of the state legislators in January wrestling with a state budget shortfall of between $2.5 billion and $3 billion. Of course if he loses, the Republican candidate, Barbara Bailey, will be in the same position.
I want to give them support, Cantwell said of the state legislature.
Whidbey General Hospital reported last week that is has asked employees to voluntarily retire or resign, in an effort to balance the hospitals budget while maintaining a safe fund balance to ensure it can pay its bills. Mandatory cuts could follow. Doctors are folding up practice here due to rising costs and low federal reimbursements, and the hospital is having trouble attracting new doctors to Whidbey Island.
Additionally, hospital officials say the ability to attract and retain nurses and technicians is also impacted by a tight budget. Health care professionals can make more money if they work in another region of the state or country.
The hospital is in a minus position, Doug Bishop, chief financial officer of Whidbey General Hospital, said. The reimbursement rate is not coming close to covering our costs. The result is that the fastest growing expense for the hospital is the write-off of unreimbursed, unpaid billings.
Bishop said that if the federal health care system pays up, he would be able to reduce the fees to the private sector by 45-percent.
Meanwhile, doctors face the same reimbursement crisis the hospital faces.
These issues are at a crisis, Dr. John Oakland told Cantwell. I just closed a practice yesterday. I could not keep it open.
Oakland said he stopped billing Medicaid for reimbursement for care he provided to covered patients in 1997, when he figured out that it cost him $30 to collect about $25 in payment from Medicaid. Since that time, Oakland said he would just care for Medicaid patients for free.
Oakland said the practice he was forced to close filled a need in the community that is now unfilled. He took care of patients with neurological problems. Now, he is planning to open a practice here in general internal medicine, but he is worried about the success of it.
I will continue to practice medicine until I cant walk, Oakland said. I enjoy practicing medicine.
Cantwell heard concerns from community members ranging from fears about the ripple effect a health care crisis has on the Islands overall economy, to the inability to find a doctor on the island because theres not enough of them. One woman said that although she has private health insurance none of the doctors are available to take on new patients.
Scott Rhine, chief executive officer of Whidbey General Hospital, said that a public forum such as the one Friday serves a good purpose.
Education, Rhine said. It makes the community aware of the issues that affect the hospital. It gives the opportunity for our legislators to hear specific issues or problems that we are facing. And, hopefully through better understanding, we can have one more person sense the need to help work on these issues.
However, Rhine remains worried about whether real changes can be made soon on the federal level.
As long as the health care budget is fixed, the larger states...are not going to be willing to give up funding to support states like Washington.