In a unanimous decision during a May 21 meeting, Olympic Medical Center's board approved bringing a proposed tax levy increase to Clallam County voters, and with increases in the number of uninsured and underinsured patients, it might be just what the doctor ordered.
The proposed levy, which will be voted on by residents within Hospital District 2 on Aug. 19, would increase the levy from 11 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation to 44 cents. The levy, according to board chairman James Cammack, has not been raised since its creation in 1947.
"You've gotten one hell of a bargain," Cammack said during the board's May 21 meeting.
Under the current tax levy, OMC receives $836,060 which amounts to 0.7 percent of the hospital's overall budget. If the proposed increase is adopted, funding is estimated to total $3,344,241, making up 2.8 percent of the OMC budget. According to the medical center's CEO Eric Lewis, the hospital is not in a financial crisis yet, but the situation is not getting any better and in order to maintain the level of service, more funding is required. In 2007 the hospital's operating margin was minus 0.7 percent.
"If you've got no margin, then you've got no program. I would take it one step further and say if you've got no quality," chief of staff Dr. Mark Fischer said. "Mediocrity is not an option." According to Lewis, one of the biggest problems facing Olympic Medical Center is the increasing number of uninsured and underinsured patients. There are between 8,000 and 9,000 Clallam County residents without insurance, Lewis said, many of whom are small business owners or those employed by small businesses.
"To me it's a system that's obviously dangerous," Lewis said, adding that residents are now staying uninsured longer and the number of underinsured individuals is increasing. "They do have insurance but they can't pay their patient responsibility."
Not only is the system a dangerous one, it's costly. Without a means of seeking medical attention, many men and women who have little to no insurance let ailments linger until finally they're forced to visit the emergency room where they cannot be turned away. In some cases inpatient services are required. By law, the hospital cannot deny anyone emergency care, which ends up costing the hospital money. In 2007 Olympic Medical Center reported $7 million in bad debt.
To serve the uninsured and underinsured before their illnesses become acute, the hospital helps fund two free clinics and plans for more funding to be spent emphasizing preventive medicine with the hope that it will reduce the number of patients coming to the emergency room for treatment. The hospital also offers a financial assistance program, and in 2007 the hospital hired a full-time staff member to help patients apply for Medicaid. Of the 1,033 patients who applied, only 142 qualified and of the $1.2 million charged to Medicaid, only $288,713 was reimbursed.
According to Lewis, if the proposed tax levy were to pass, the hospital would invest in emergency room improvements, programs for wellness and chronic disease management and the financial assistance program.
"Frankly, if this doesn't pass, I don't see OMC surviving because there's just so far you can dive into the red," said Austin Lee, who attended the meeting and is a levy advocate.
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