One of the most important issues facing the 2013 Montana Legislature is whether to take advantage of the opportunity to expand health insurance coverage to low-income Montanans who fall in the gap between those eligible for Medicaid and those who typically can afford private insurance. The Administration and Board of Directors of North Valley Hospital support such an expansion for a variety of reasons.
The need is great. Approximately 69,000 Montanans who are currently uninsured would qualify for health insurance with the expansion, allowing them to receive preventative care and early treatment so that they don’t delay seeking care until their situation escalates out of control or worse.
Our community hospital sees patients from a wide variety of demographic sectors and is recognizing an increasing number of individuals without health insurance who are generally less healthy than those with some form of coverage. These individuals frequently avoid routine, preventative health screenings and obtain care only when they are very sick.
They are more likely to use the hospital emergency room, which is the most expensive venue for care. More serious illness combined with the most costly form of care leads to skyrocketing costs for everyone in the form of higher insurance premiums and hospital costs. Last fiscal year, North Valley Hospital experienced a 20 percent rise in Charity Care by providing healthcare services to an expanding number of families with income levels meeting our charity care guidelines.
Our Bad Debt expense also increased 7 percent as more patients without insurance were provided care, but did not/could not pay for services. Higher insurance premiums and higher costs will lead to even more people falling into the coverage gap.
We have recently completed a Joint Community Health Needs Assessment for Flathead County with our partners at Kalispell Regional Healthcare and the Flathead City-County Health Department. The comprehensive research indicates that issues such as preventative health care, mental health and coordination of care, especially for low-income individuals, are significant in our area. Expanding insurance coverage in conjunction with outreach efforts offered by healthcare providers will help address these gaps.
Another benefit of the Medicaid expansion will be the job growth in healthcare-related positions to serve the families who would become eligible for insured care. The Montana Medical Association cites an estimate of 12,000 new jobs that would be created around the state, including, not only clinical workers, but also support staff from a wide variety of skill areas. The Flathead Valley is poised to respond with hard workers and a world-class learning institution, Flathead Valley Community College, which is expanding its nursing program right in our backyard.
We have the opportunity to improve the situation for Montana’s citizens. With the help of Medicaid expansion, we can improve care coordination, curtail inefficient health care spending, generate good jobs, and improve the quality of care for many more of our friends and neighbors. By using federal money now to develop health care programs, including easier access to less expensive primary care (versus hospital emergency rooms) and preventative medicine and education, we can lower the costs to Montanans in the future.
Jason Spring is CEO of North Valley Hospital
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