Press-Republican

December 21, 2012

Hospitals feel poised precariously on fiscal cliff

By JEFF MEYERS
Press-Republican

---- — PLATTSBURGH — Potential budget cuts caused by the looming fiscal cliff could have devastating effects on the region’s hospitals, including the loss of major programs those facilities provide to communities.

Representatives from Adirondack Health, CVPH Medical Center and Elizabethtown Community Hospital met with local media Thursday afternoon to express their concerns about the current deficit-reduction negotiations in Washington, D.C., that they say could spell disaster to rural health care.

“It’s depressing,” said Adirondack Health President and Chief Executive Officer Chandler Ralph.

Her take on the talks in Washington is that government seems to be targeting rural health care as a fix to the nation’s fiscal crisis.

“Health care is such a basic fundamental right for people in the community, but it’s so easy for them to cut payments to hospitals.”

If the nation’s political leaders cannot avoid the approaching fiscal cliff at the end of the year, health-care providers in the North Country would be hit with a potential $432 million in cuts over the next 10 years. In 2013 alone, Medicare cuts could add an additional $11 million in lost revenue for the region’s hospitals.

“We have all faced difficult times over the past 12 to 18 months,” CVPH President and Chief Executive Officer Stephens Mundy said.

Area hospitals, he noted, have already had to make major sacrifices by restructuring programs and reducing staff numbers.

“If these cuts come, we will have to look at programs. When we receive significantly less money than it costs to provide services, then something has to give.”

The most vulnerable services will be those whose reimbursement levels do not reflect the true cost of providing care, including such programs as dialysis, chemotherapy and obstetrics.

‘MOST HORRIFIC CUTS’

The region’s hospitals and nursing homes already expect $320 million in funding cuts over the next 10 years as part of the Affordable Care Act and other decreases in Medicare and Medicaid reimbursement.

But those reductions may pale in comparison to Washington’s response to the fiscal crisis.

“What we are facing are some of the most horrific cuts I’ve seen in all my 40 years (in health care),” Ralph said. “If you add it up for Adirondack Health alone, we’re looking at $4 million in cuts. We can no longer tweak the system to offset those kinds of losses. We’ll have to take a scalpel to the services in our communities.”

Adirondack Health operates two hospitals, Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake and Lake Placid; and two nursing homes, Mercy Living Center in Tupper Lake and Uihlein Living Center in Lake Placid.With major reductions in aid looming, there is the potential that some of those facilities might not survive, Ralph said.

SLASHED AID

Elizabethtown Community Hospital faces cuts of more than $400,000 in 2013 and $4 million over 10 years, which Chief Executive Officer Rod Boula said would have a “tremendous negative impact on the availability of primary-care services to our rural communities.”

The slashed aid could have major impacts on the area’s health-care clinics in places such as Mineville, Willsboro and Keeseville, Ralph noted.

Dan Ashline-Beaudet, representing Service Employees International Union 1199 at CVPH Medical Center, echoed the concerns of the hospital officials.

“These kinds of cuts are going to make it difficult for our patients, our employees and for our communities,” he said. “We are trying to do our best to provide quality care to the best of our ability.”

‘IMPENDING DOOM’

Both Ashline-Beaudet and Mundy recently traveled to Washington, D.C., to lobby for rural health care, and both agreed that the atmosphere in the nation’s capital was anything but positive.

“I normally come back (from trips to Washington) facing some harsh challenges and have always felt up to the task,” Mundy said. “I never thought I’d come back feeling such impending doom.”

None of the officials would speak of specific losses if cuts are indeed severe, but all shared that sense of total frustration they expect to be feeling over the next few weeks.

They also asked the public to show its support for rural health care by contacting their elected officials and reminding them of the importance of health care in their communities.

Email Jeff Meyers: jmeyers@pressrepublican.com