Budget cuts hit home


StEshospital_1Area hospitals concerned about cuts in New York State proposed 2009 health care budget

By Claudia Mathis
SUN staff writer

Gov. David Paterson’s proposed health care budget, which would cut funding for hospitals in New York by more than $1.3 billion, has been met with much condemnation. The cuts could force some hospitals to lay off staff and discontinue valuable health care services. According to the Healthcare Association of New York State, in the past eight years, 21 hospitals in New York have closed, causing job losses and forcing thousands of people to travel for treatment instead of staying closer to home, removing valuable community resources that cannot be replaced.

In Oneida County alone, the combined health care budgets for Faxton-St. Luke’s Healthcare, St. Elizabeth Medical Center and Rome Memorial Hospital total more than $8.3 million.

The proposed budget will negatively impact St. Elizabeth Medical Center by more than $4.2 million. “The cuts will have a significant impact,” said Catherine Hanover, St. Elizabeth’s vice president of  marketing, public relations and government affairs.

“Right now in New York, two-and-a-half million people are uninsured,” said Hanover. “When these uninsured people come to St. Elizabeth, we provide care to them, as well as to the underinsured. We also help them apply to various programs to get funding to pay their hospital bill. After that, any bad debt has to be written off by the medical center. That is our core mission — to care for all of society, including those who don’t have a voice. We feel honored and privileged to do it. ”

Hanover said that the fastest growing category of patients are those who are underinsured, those whose insurance coverage doesn’t provide adequate reimbursement for their entire hospital bill. “The medical center shoulders the burden for Medicare and Medicaid,” said Hanover. “The projected cost is $12 million. We’re in prayer daily.”

Although Hanover said she couldn’t predict how the cuts will affect St. Elizabeth until the budget becomes final, she guessed that the hospital would suspend the purchase of any technical equipment, reduce or eliminate services that are not core to its mission and reduce its staff.

Hanover and several other St. Elizabeth administrators met with legislators in Albany on Healthcare Advocacy Day Jan. 27, urging them to push back the proposed cuts and advance health care reform to include coverage for all, improved quality and controlled cost.

“We’ve done a significant amount of advocation at many different levels,” said Hanover. “Right now the reform is to be done through the budget process, but we don’t think that will work. It has to be done outside of the budget process. We want to support more outpatient services.”

Faxton-St. Luke Healthcare in Utica stands to lose between $2 and $4 million from the proposed budget cuts. “These cuts could potentially affect the programs and services we offer,” said  CEO/President Scott Perra. Debra Altdoerffer, vice president of communications at the hospital, concurred. She said that it will be difficult to maintain the present level of care with the imminent  budget cuts.

Faxton-St. Luke Healthcare’s administrators are concerned about the growing number of uninsured patients being treated at the hospital. “Our doors are open to everyone, and as the economic forecast continues to trend down, more and more people become unemployed and uninsured,” explained Perra. “We incur $11 million dollars of bad debt and charity care annually, and that amount increased 20 percent from the previous year. Currently, we are reimbursed by Medicaid only $.85 on each dollar of inpatient cost and $.52 on each dollar for outpatient services.”

Kathryn Ruscitto, senior vice president for strategy, development and government affairs at St. Joseph’s Hospital Health Center in Syracuse, said that the budget cuts couldn’t have come at a worse time. “We are now facing a huge increase in demand for services,” she said. “We’re very worried about an increase in inappropriate emergency room admissions.”

Ruscitto said the budget cuts could be as much as $2.5 million or as little as $750,000, depending on whether or not the reforms are enacted.

Officials are especially concerned about how the budget cuts will have a long-term impact on the hospital’s mental health services community outreach program, which includes a psychiatric emergency room.

John O’Neil, president and CEO of Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Binghamton, said the proposed budget cuts are disturbing. The cuts amount to possibly $2 million or greater. “Overall, it’s frustrating because we don’t know,” O’Neil said. “And by not knowing, we don’t know how to plan new programs. The cuts will affect the poor and vulnerable.”

Over the last two to three months, the hospital has laid off 17 staff members and a number of programs have been eliminated which were funded by New York State. The Juvenile Justice as well as Parents and Children Together programs were two that were cut recently. “The loss of these programs puts families and young people at risk,” said O’Neil. “The Juvenile Justice program kept youth out of the system and the Parents and Children Together program taught parents how to take care of their kids.”

The statutory deadline for the passage of the budget in April 1, 2009. The budgets cuts are still in the process of negotiation with the legislature.

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