Friday, May 28, 2004


Hospitals suffer so we don't have to

Since free registration is required, here it is:

Last week, our 16-month-old son hit his head, had a seizure, and stopped breathing for several minutes. It was the most terrifying experience of our lives. 911. Ambulance. Emergency room. Tests and scans, all normal. A cautious release. Two days later, another massive seizure. Another terrifying ambulance ride, watching my unconscious baby under a tiny oxygen mask. This time, they admitted him.

The hospital -- Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite -- was wonderful, the medical staff knowledgeable and compassionate, the care terrific. It wasn't until halfway through this experience, when things were under control and it was clear our son was OK, that I looked around and started to wonder: Aren't hospitals in financial crisis? How are they doing this? Is Children's just flush with cash, while all other hospitals suffer?

Turns out, no. Children's faces the same serious problems as all other hospitals, but as a patient, you'd never know it. In fact, you'd never know it at most of the hospitals you go to, not just in Georgia, but nationwide.

When I started investigating this subject, I was astounded to realize just how challenging things were for these cornerstones of our health care system, and just how heroic are their efforts to continue to provide the quality of care that they do, day in, day out, for every single person who comes through their doors, regardless of their ability to pay.

Hospitals are being squeezed from every side. The population is growing and aging, requiring more care, and more expensive care to boot. The number of completely uninsured are rising -- 1.3 million Georgians don't even have Medicaid or Medicare -- and reimbursements from insurance companies and the government are dropping. Due to Georgia's budget crisis, Medicaid pays less than 90 percent of a hospital's actual costs, and in a few weeks that percentage will fall even further. At Scottish Rite alone, according to its IRS filings, at the end of 2002 the hospital expected to write off nearly 60 percent of its overdue accounts. And Scottish Rite isn't exactly in the inner city. All told, nearly 60 percent of Georgia hospitals lose money in providing patient care.

As stress levels skyrocket and the nursing shortage looms, every one of our hospitals does more, with less, without compromising the quality of care.

Georgia Hospital Association spokesperson Kevin Bloye drew a comparison that I had never really thought about before. "Hospitals don't turn patients away, and I can't think of any other industry like that. You can't walk into the grocery store and say, 'I don't have the money, but I need to eat, so I want to take these items please.' Hospitals are different, and that just goes to show you the level of commitment that they have to their community."

And for the word "hospital," substitute "people." Because that, in the end, is the reason these facilities continue to provide the level of care that they do: They are filled with committed, caring people who will go the extra mile, work the extra hours, and endure the inevitable toll on their own lives, because they are making a critical difference in the lives of others.

The second week of May was National Hospital Appreciation Week, and I bet most of us missed it. I know I sure did. Until the next day, when reality gave me a crash course in gratitude for those who work on the medical front lines every day, under the most challenging conditions.

So on behalf of all of us who have never really appreciated that before: a heartfelt thank you.

Emphasis is mine. Have a nice weekend and a safe Memorial Day.

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