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Lower Valley hospital CEO's take wait-and-see approaches on new health care legislation

Staff from hospitals in Sunnyside and Prosser weighed in on the latest health care legislation now making its way through Congress.

This past Thursday, Dec. 24, the Senate along party lines approved a health care bill, known as a health insurance reform bill.

"I was proud to go to the Senate floor to cast an historic vote in favor of reforming our nation's health care system," Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said of the Senate bill's passage. "The bill we passed meets the goals of increasing competition, lowering costs and providing individuals and businesses with more choice in their health care coverage."

Not surprisingly, President Barack Obama also waxed enthusiastic about the 2,200 page Senate bill, calling it a "major step forward for the American people." He added, "After a nearly century-long struggle we are on the cusp of making health care reform a reality in the United States of America."

A conservative think tank called the Liberty Counsel opposes the Senate health care bill because it still funds abortion. If the bill becomes law, Liberty Counsel says it is prepared to challenge the constitutionality of the bill because it claims Congress has no authority to require every person to obtain insurance coverage.

Before the bill can become law, though, it must come to terms with a vastly different bill in the House. Abortion and a public option could be sticking points to getting a bill to the President's desk next month.

"We won┬╣t really know what the legislation looks like until the House and Senate reconcile their differing bills," says Jon D. Smiley, CEO of Sunnyside Community Hospital. "Our hospital and clinics treat everyone without regard to their ability to pay, and as such, we already see a great deal of Medicaid and Medicare patients."

Whatever the final outcome of health care legislation, Smiley added, "Our hope is that the final bill will not lessen the ability of our hospital and physicians to care for the patients of the Valley."

Smiley noted, "We continue to work with the Washington State Hospital Association, the American Hospital Association and in direct communication with any lawmaker that will listen, to advocate for the needs of rural health care."

Prosser Memorial Hospital is also taking something of a wait-and-see approach to health care legislation.

Prosser Memorial Hospital CEO Julie Petersen says it's going to take awhile before hospitals see changes.

"The first notable thing about both the House and Senate proposals is they take a real long time to decide how care is delivered," she said.

"There are no real changes until 2013 for the Senate bill," Petersen continued. "Tax adjustments and insurance reform go into effect right away, but there's no immediate change in the delivery of health care. It has turned out to be an insurance reform bill more than a delivery of health care reform."

Petersen says the recently passed Senate bill has some good elements.

"The Senate version does have some positive things for support of Washington's basic health plan," she said. "That's very important for this state."

Petersen also praised the fact that both House and Senate versions retain the designation of critical access hospitals. Petersen said both Sunnyside and Prosser hospitals have that designation, enabling them to receive Medicare reimbursements at a better rate than prospective payment hospitals like Kadlec and hospitals in Yakima.

"We're fortunate to be a critical access hospital," she said. "We're paid on a formula that recognizes our costs to provide care, not on a fixed fee."

There are differences between the House and Senate bills, namely the abortion and public options elements.

Petersen also notes that the bills are vastly different in how they pay for the reform.

The Senate bill, with a price tag of about $800 billion, levies a Medicare payroll tax on wealthy Americans and taxes high-end or "Cadillac" insurance plans.

The House plan, weighing in at more than $1 trillion, adds a surcharge for high-income taxpayers.

Despite the differences, Petersen said it is a positive development that people are at least taking about the health care issue.

"The way people seek health care coverage is so disjointed, at least we're moving in a direction where there's recognition that people need access to health care," she said.

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