Medi-Cal cuts bad for everyone’s health

Wayne Ferch is president and CEO of Feather River Hospital in Paradise.

All patients, regardless of their ability to pay, depend on their local community hospitals for critical health-care services. But many hospitals are facing multibillion-dollar budget cuts and are dangerously close to shutting their doors.

California is facing a severe budget shortfall—now estimated at $20 billion. To address this massive budget deficit, the governor declared a “fiscal emergency” and signed a measure that delays and reduces Medi-Cal payments to hospitals by 10 percent. This represents a total cut of $500 million to hospitals throughout the state.

To make matters worse, President Bush has proposed a $94.4 billion cut from Medicare and another $18 billion cut from the Medicaid program over the next five years. This could result in $11 billion in losses for California’s hospitals and health systems.

This reduction in funding will seriously jeopardize access to hospital care for California’s working poor and uninsured as well as specialized services such as emergency and trauma care that we all depend on regardless of our insurance status. The cuts could force some hospitals to close or reduce access to essential health-care services.

Rural hospitals like Feather River Hospital are projected to be among the hardest hit. Most of us serve large Medi-Cal populations, have small in-patient capacity, and operate nursing facilities and community clinics that are predominantly Medi-Cal.

Exacerbating the problem is a growing trend of doctors who no longer treat Medi-Cal patients because of the program’s woefully low payment rates for private practitioners. When patients are unable to receive care from their doctors, they often turn to already overcrowded hospital emergency rooms—the most expensive setting in which patients receive care.

Most important, where will patients go when hospitals are forced to close their doors? More than 70 California hospitals have closed in the past 10 years. Statewide, nearly half of California’s hospitals operate in the red and many are either near or already in bankruptcy proceedings.

Given the enormity of the fiscal problems, it is clear that all state programs—including those affecting hospitals—are going to face budget cuts. But we all must do everything we can to minimize the impacts of those budget cuts on our patients. It is not feasible to simply cut our way out of a $20 billion deficit. A balanced approach on new revenues and budget cuts is needed to address the state’s budget problems.

Let our legislators know that these severe cuts will jeopardize patient care in Butte County.