Health system’s
economic woes
illustrate bigger problem

Published 11:06 pm Friday, May 29, 2009

By Staff
With Tuesday’s announcement by the Beaufort Regional Health System that it has been forced to cut expenses to save money, another myth bites the dust.
The health system is facing a $1.6 million budget shortfall. To help offset the decline in revenue, health-system officials have offered employees the option to reduce their hours from 40 to 38 per week, or to work 40 hours per week at a 5 percent reduction in pay and receive equivalent time off to use as they desire.
The health system also is implementing other cost-cutting measures, such as freezing travel and employee tuition assistance. In January, it eliminated overtime pay, froze merit increases and decreased the hospital’s contribution to the employee retirement plan.
But despite the economic carnage the country has experienced in the past year or so, it’s easy to assume that health care is immune to recessions. After all, people continue to get sick even when the stock market is down or they’re out of work, and in many cases they must seek care for their illnesses, injuries or ongoing maladies.
So, even if the economy is in the tank — as it certainly is these days — hospitals still rake in money.
Here’s why: Under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act of 1986, hospitals such as Beaufort County Medical Center that participate in the federal Medicare program must medically screen individuals who show up at the hospital’s emergency room.
If the screening reveals an emergency medical condition, the hospital must “stabilize the medical condition” before transferring or discharging the patient.
The hospital is required to provide screening and treatment even if patients can’t pay for the procedures.
That’s the dilemma the local health system and other hospitals around the country face, particularly as the economy worsens. As people lose their jobs — and thus their insurance — they are likely to be unable to pay emergency medical expenses.
According to the American Medical Association, EMTALA was enacted to ensure that emergency health care services were available to everyone regardless of their ability to pay.
The statute was designed primarily to address the problem of “patient dumping,” whereby hospital emergency rooms deny uninsured patients the same treatment provided paying patients, either by refusing care outright or by transferring uninsured patients to other facilities.
Though the law certainly makes it more difficult for hospitals to stay in the black, it nevertheless helps ensure equal emergency health care in our country.
It also highlights the need for Congress to finally enact a system of universal health care that will keep hospitals afloat as they provide the vitally important role they play in our society.
That the Beaufort Regional Health System offered details on its economic woes without the Daily News finding out about it accidentally is laudable. Let’s hope the economy finally kicks back in gear and the system’s employees can resume their normal work weeks.