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Moving Forward to a Healthy Future

Hospital news | Thursday, May 1, 2008
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Contact: Mardi Ford

By Bob Messinger


The bottom line in health care is that it has to be about more than the bottom line. In 2007, Grande Ronde Hospital took this to heart as we celebrated a considerable milestone: a century of caring for the community. Dramatic changes have occurred in those 100 years but the past 12 months serve to illustrate the Hospital’s striving to improve the health and wellness of the residents of our communities.
It hasn’t all been easy. It is well known that the nation is experiencing a physician shortage, and here in Northeast Oregon, we’ve felt that crisis first-hand. Tremendous energy has been dedicated to remedying the situation and at times it has been very discouraging. But continued efforts are paying off. Five new physicians recently made commitments and will arrive in La Grande in 2008 – a pediatrician, two internists, a general surgeon and a radiologist.
Back to the Future,
While reflecting on our past this year, we also leapt into the future with wireless, robotic technology. Through collaboration with St. Alphonsus Regional Medical Center in Boise, Grande Ronde Hospital acquired a 215 pound robot.
Controlled via a laptop computer and joystick, and equipped with a camera and microphones that allow two-way communication, this new technology presents a wealth of opportunities – from real-time, face to face consultations with specialists to distance education.
The robot is already earning its keep – Dr. Kevin Grayson, a pediatrician with Grande Ronde Hospital Children’s Clinic, recently used the robot to consult with a neonatologist in Boise.
“This technology allows us to make better decisions with cases that are on the fence,” Grayson says.
Ultimately, wireless robotics enable us to bring urban medicine to our patients. Better decisions mean improved patient health care, and Grande Ronde Hospital is ahead of the curve here.
“The thing that differentiates Grande Ronde Hospital from other rural hospitals is its administration and physicians,” says Mike Ward, executive director of corporate development at St. Alphonsus. “They are early adapters. They are open and responsive and very forward thinking.”
Visionary is another way to describe the physicians, nurses and administration supporting this project.
Improving Healthcare Access
We’re making improvements in other ways, too. With our new Oncology Clinic, patients no longer must drive hundreds of miles for cancer treatments. Instead Dr. Robert Quackenbush logs the miles twice monthly to La Grande from St. Mary Medical Center in Walla Walla. The clinic is already fully booked and we are extremely grateful to Dr. Quackenbush, St. Mary’s and our oncology staff who graciously make personal sacrifices to aid our patients.
Progress is visible in the Internal Medicine Clinic expansion. Once completed, the clinic will improve privacy and contain 30 exam rooms, a patient education area, three procedure rooms, increased space for medical records, a laboratory, a patient lobby area and parking. Late summer 2008 is the completion target date.
Even though local population numbers remain stationary, demands on our services grow.
In fiscal year 2007 (May 2006 to April 2007) 10,856 patients visited our emergency department, up 3.4 percent from the previous year. Outpatient and inpatient visits increased too. In the same period, Grande Ronde Hospital served 52,140 outpatients and 2,223 inpatients - a combined increase of 11.5 percent.
Filling the Gaps
Needless to say, health care costs are rising while many are experiencing declining insurance coverage. In 2006, 16.6 percent of the U.S. population was without insurance according to the US Census Bureau. In Eastern Oregon, (Baker, Malheur, Wallowa and Union counties), 11,745 people were uninsured. That’s 14.6 percent of the population. Particularly at risk are children, with 116,000 uninsured in Oregon under the age of 19.
To help address this gap, in 2006 Grande Ronde Hospital Children’s Clinic began offering free weekly care for children without insurance. In 18 months, 319 young patients have received check-ups, physicals and immunizations.
Our charity care extends to seniors and working-age adults, too - the group most likely lacking health insurance and the largest segment of the uninsured. More than $1,480,000 in uncompensated charity care was provided to patients of Grande Ronde Hospital in fiscal year 2007.
Fiscal Fitness
Being a Critical Access Hospital (CAH) has helped to keep us and other small, rural hospitals fiscally fit. Without the CAH designation, Grande Ronde Hospital would likely be struggling to stay viable. Why? Simply put, expenses continue to rise. New technology is very expensive and government-sponsored health insurance programs offer reimbursement payments that are less than adequate to cover the cost of providing care.
However, as a CAH, Medicare provides additional payments. This incentive makes balancing the numbers easier and thus possible to provide quality care. The Critical Access Hospital program, though, is not perfect. It subjects hospitals to a 25-bed limit. Because hospitals cannot always anticipate their daily patient census, there are unavoidable situations where patients must be diverted to other facilities.
Fortunately, this is not a common occurrence. Our political leaders have recognized the need for change. U.S. Senator Gordon Smith, with co-sponsor U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, has introduced a bill in the Senate that would provide flexibility in the CAH program. U.S. Representative Greg Walden has co-sponsored similar legislation in the House of Representatives. With this new legislation, Critical Access Hospitals could appropriately accommodate emergency, daily or seasonal fluctuations.
Please show our leaders that you appreciate their sponsorship and support of this legislation, which will no doubt be taken up again in the New Year.
Over 10 decades, the people of Union County, along with physicians, staff and volunteers established a heritage that we can all take pride in. Reflection gives us time to pause and contemplate. In 2007 we reflected on and celebrated our history. In 2008, we will move forward to our future.