No more 'critical access' status at Whidbey General

For the past nine months, officials at Whidbey General Hospital have been looking at whether to be designated a Critical Access Hospital — a Medicare program that would have poured between $1.7 million and $2.1 million into the hospital.

Such a designation, however, would have limited the number of patients the hospital could see every day.

Because of that, the Whidbey General Hospital Board decided Monday night not to apply for the designation.

“We’re a community hospital supported by the community,” said hospital CEO Scott Rhine in a Tuesday morning interview. “We don’t see (the critical access designation) as serving our mission to the community.

The Critical Access Hospital designation is a Medicare program that helps small, struggling, rural hospitals stay afloat.

To ensure that only small hospitals apply for the program, Medicare put a 25 in-patient limit on hospitals in the program. The average length of stay for patients in a Critical Access Hospital also can’t exceed four days.

Although Whidbey General Hospital averaged 23 in-patients a day for the past six months, numbers fluctuate on a daily basis can reach as high as 35 patients in a single day.

Rhine said the hospital would continually go over the limit and estimated that 40 to 50 patients a month would be diverted to other hospitals.

There is a provision in the program that allows those numbers to spike depending on emergency situations. However, that can only happen several times a year.

He added that it’s unlikely the administration will re-examine this program in the future. The hospital has until Jan. 1, 2006 to apply for the designation. After that, the criteria will change and Whidbey General Hospital won’t be eligible for the program.

Hospital officials started looking at the Critical Access Designation last September as a way to boost revenues and help resolve budget problems.

The hospital went through two rounds of cutbacks in the past year and a half to make up for lagging revenues.

In December of 2002, the hospital offered voluntary retirement to staff members in a cost-saving move.

The hospital’s financial situation continued to worsen throughout the first part of 2003. After losing $600,000 in May of that year, the hospital went through a round of layoffs and closed several facilities including the dental service at the North Whidbey Community Clinic in Oak Harbor.

In looking for new money sources, Rhine said the administration considered the Critical Access designation when recent federal legislation increased the in-patient requirements from 15 patients to 25 patients, which was a number that was easier for the hospital to stay under.

The hospital administration examined patient levels for the past several months before deciding not to go forward with the program.

The Whidbey General Hospital board unanimously approved the administration’s recommendation Monday evening.

As for the hospital’s present finances, Rhine said the revenues are doing well and the number one financial goal is to rebuild cash reserves.

The hospital currently has enough cash on hand to operate for five days, but wants to have enough money to operate for 15 days.

The hospital is also working on increasing the operating margin on its $81 million budget from its present margin of 3 percent to 5 percent, Rhine said.

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