Bartlett hopeful about health care reform

Begich says current reform bill to include rural hospital program

Posted: Thursday, December 10, 2009

Juneau's Bartlett Regional Hospital and a handful of other rural hospitals around the nation are hoping to continue to participate in a demonstration project that provides extra Medicare money to rural hospitals.

Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire
Klas Stolpe / Juneau Empire

Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, told reporters Monday that he had an agreement from a group of freshmen Democrats to try and extend the Rural Community Hospital Demonstration Project for an additional five years as part of health care reform under consideration.

"It's a big deal in a positive way for us," said hospital spokesman Jim Strader.

Begich said he first heard about the issue while campaigning around the state, and after taking office he worked with other senators from affected rural states to see that the program was extended.

An initial proposal for a one-year extension has been expanded into five years and will be part of national health reform, Begich said. Without the extension it will expire at the end of June.

The longer life of the program allows Bartlett to plan ahead with confidence, said Garth Hamblin, chief financial officer for the hospital.

If the current system continues, it would likely be worth $600,000 a year for the next five years, Hamblin said.

When the program began five years ago, the hospital knew that the money would be coming in future years and felt comfortable going ahead with a multi-million dollar emergency room renovations that have been a boon for the hospital, Hamblin said.

Only 15 hospitals nationwide are currently eligible for the program. In Alaska that also includes SEARHC's Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital in Sitka, and the Soldotna hospital.

Begich said the demonstration project is part of a package of consumer-friendly amendments to the health care reform bill being pushed by a group of 11 freshmen Democrats hoping to hold down health care costs.

"The full legislation now under debate in the Senate makes wonderful strides in fixing what is broken in America's current health care system," Begich said. "What the freshmen are saying today is we believe our package can help. We can go further. We can do better. Our goal is a health care system that is more efficient and more affordable."

Many of the rural hospitals participating in the program have used the extra revenue, as did Bartlett, to maintain or improve 24-hour emergency room services.

Spending money on emergency care can be a cost saving measure, Begich said.

"Otherwise situations can get worse, and transporting (patients) to another location is costly," he said.

The rural hospital program is a demonstration project that Hamblin and Begich said has proved its worth. Begich said he expects a new five-year plan to be a success as well, and likely will be expanded nationwide in due time.

"These are pilot programs, and if they have positive outcomes we should move forward," he said.

The cost of the program will be absorbed in the Medicare budget with no overall cost, Begich said.

• Contact reporter Pat Forgeyat

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