Too many patients who can't pay their bills have Arizona's small town hospitals facing a financial epidemic.
From no insurance to cutbacks in state-run health care, plenty of Arizona's 14 rural hospitals are feeling the pain, and all this could affect your wait at local hospitals.
Southeast Arizona Medical Center in Douglas continues to deal with the challenge of patients who can't pay for their care, nor have the insurance coverage to do so. This is a problem that continues to burden rural Arizona hospitals.
A quick response and immediate care are necessary in Douglas just like anywhere else.
"We run a lot of medical calls," said Douglas Fire Department engineer and medical coordinator Rick Martinez.
Patients in those calls have to go somewhere. In Douglas, that's usually Southeast Arizona Medical Center.
"We need that kind of care going to patients going to the hospital. Otherwise, it's going to be a long distance we have to travel," Martinez said.
"There's a time-sensitive issue there for them to get the appropriate treatment," said SAMC CEO Annie Benson.
Benson said that about 18 employees, not doctors or nurses, were cut last year. SAMC is in chapter eleven bankruptcy protection and has financial support from Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center. A big challenge is that about half of Douglas patients cannot pay or they use Medicaid through Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, also known as AHCCCS, and that pays only two thirds to three quarters of cost.
"It's difficult. Part of why little rural hospitals are not surviving. And one of those strategies is certainly to partner with bigger hospitals," Benson said.
"So if we can increase coverage and increase payment rates, I think that's going to be helpful," said Kevin Driesen, with the Center for Rural Health.
Driesen pointed out that cuts to AHCCCS hurt rural communities more. The state has fourteen rural hospitals. Driesen said that as many as six in recent years have been in the red. Worst case is that losing these hospitals could mean long commutes for those patients to places like Sierra Vista and Tucson.
"For example during flu season. January, February of the year. I think you're more likely to feel the impact of people coming up and even more people using the emergency department, so, I think there would be an effect," Driesen said.
Either way, losing rural hospitals means more time and money transporting critical patients. Some of them will need our tax money for the ride.
"It would also be a strain on our department, locally, economically, you're looking at more dollars meaning more overtime, more paramedics, EMT's transporting patients to a facility that's further away, Martinez said.
The Arizona legislature has yet to decide whether to expand Medicaid funding and accept that federal money.
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