Alaska editorial: Balancing care: Going Outside could harm local institutions

This editorial first appeared in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:


As employers, insurance companies and consumers grapple with sky-high health care costs in Alaska, we’re hearing more people talk about what some might consider the nuclear option for institutions in Alaska — subsidizing travel costs to send more patients Outside for cheaper treatment.

The state is investigating this idea as one way to help slow the rise in health care costs. Double-digit increases are a ticket to an unsustainable future.

There’s no mystery about the problem — buying tickets to subsidize the travel costs to send a patient to the Lower 48 could save tens of thousands of dollars on major operations.

A hip replacement surgery that costs about $40,000 in the Seattle area could cost more than twice that amount in Fairbanks, according to an estimate presented by a University of Alaska consultant in 2010.

Looking at those numbers, it’s clear that employers might save a bundle on medical costs by spending a few thousand on air fare, car rental, food and lodging to ship patients Outside.

The downside of this concept, however, is as old as the history of Alaska.

The more that we create incentives to send people Outside for treatment, the greater the potential damage to the institutions in Alaska that have higher costs to begin with.

There is a value to having good medical care here at home. There is value in being able to see a specialist without having to deal with the hassles of travel.

There are many cases when travel Outside is impractical or inappropriate for patients, for a host of reasons. When people need emergency assistance and lives are in the balance, surgery in Seattle may not be an option.

Unless the local institutions are on a sound financial footing, we can hardly expect critical services to be there when they are most needed.

Medical facilities and the people who work in health care are part of the fabric of our society.

The ever-rising insurance costs faced by governments and private companies are a serious issue, but so is the financial health of medical facilities in Alaska.

This discussion is an important one for every community in Alaska.

There must be a balance between seeking cheaper care and preserving options for medical care within our state, so that when people need help they can get it at home.


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