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April 8, 2014

Schumer: Bill will help stave off cuts at hospitals

By Jessica Reynolds Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — Two area hospitals will benefit from recently passed legislation that will help fund ambulance providers and rural hospitals in upstate New York through April 2015, a media release said.

On April 1, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., announced that the U.S. Senate had passed his bill to extend payments to 21 rural New York hospitals and ambulance service providers as part of the Sustainable Growth Rate, or “Doc Fix” bill, the release said. The bill now awaits President Barack Obama’s signature. The UHS Chenango Memorial Hospital in Norwich and the Cobleskill Regional Hospital are two of the 21 facilities that will receive funding. 

UHS Chenango Memorial Hospital President and Chief Executive Officer Dr. Drake Lamen said the bill reinstates the Medicare Dependent Hospital and Low Volume Add-Ons, from which the 58-bed hospital has benefited for the past four years.

The bills repeatedly “sunset,” or expire, and are then reinstated again, Lamen said. The hospital counts on such funding to continue offering its services.

“We at UHS Chenango Memorial Hospital are grateful to have this funding in place,” Lamen said. “It is essential to helping us continue to provide high quality health care services to our community.”

Through the Medicare-Dependent Hospital Program, hospitals are paid by Medicare with a special rate because of the fact that most of their patients are Medicare patients, the release said. These payments allow hospitals like Chenango Memorial greater financial stability and allow them to better serve the community.

Through the Low-Volume Hospital Program, hospitals that are critical to their communities but do not serve a large number of patients can receive funding. A low-volume hospital is defined as being more than 15 miles from another comparable hospital and having fewer than 1,600 Medicare discharges per year, the release said. Since 1988, the Medicare program has recognized that these kinds of hospitals need extra support and funding so they can continue to serve rural communities.

Cobleskill Regional Hospital is one such low-volume hospital. According to its website, the 40-bed nonprofit hospital, which is affiliated with the Bassett Healthcare Network, is open seven days a week and is the only hospital in Schoharie County, making it the only provider of acute inpatient medical care, emergency care, short-stay inpatient rehabilitation and many other diagnostic and therapeutic health care services.

Karen Huxtable-Hooker, Bassett Medical Center’s public and media relations director, said Cobleskill Regional Hospital received $635,000 through the Low-Volume Hospital Program in 2013, and $610,000 is budgeted for 2014. The Senate action extending the program is very important, she said.

“There is a higher percentage of Medicare recipients living in rural regions, and so rural hospitals like Cobleskill Regional Hospital are more dependent on Medicare revenue,” Huxtable-Hooker said. “The Low-Volume Hospital Program recognizes that there are certain factors that influence the cost of providing services that are out of the control of hospitals like CRH. Patient volume is one such factor — providers in smaller, rural regions cannot achieve the economies of scale that their larger urban counterparts can.”

Without the bill’s extension of payment, hospitals such as the UHS Chenango Memorial Hospital and Cobleskill Regional Hospital would have suffered, Schumer said in the media release. Extending the payments to hospitals and ambulance providers was timely and sorely needed, he said. 

Because the bill was extended, ambulance providers will also be able to continue providing reliable, life-saving services, the release said. According to the release, Medicare payments to private, nonprofit and volunteer ambulance providers barely keep up with the cost of equipment upgrades, yet funding was set to be reduced by three percent for rural areas on April 1, 2014.

This would likely cause ambulance service providers to cut their staff, not be able to properly stock ambulances with important equipment and drugs, or even have to remove an ambulance and crew from service, which would lead to even longer response times, the release said. 

Schumer said well-equipped, well-funded ambulatory services and medics are more important now than ever as the population ages and the number of Medicare beneficiaries increase. The 60-plus population in New York increased by 15 percent between 2000 and 2010, he said. Because approximately 40 percent of patients transported by ambulances are covered by Medicare, expiring Medicare payments are critical to ambulance providers, Schumer said.

Schumer said he is very happy that the Senate passed what he called “critical legislation,” which will now become law and help keep rural hospitals and ambulance providers up and running.

“With this funding in place, these life-saving programs can continue to ensure that Upstate New York residents can receive top-notch health and emergency care,” Schumer said, “and that our hospitals and ambulance providers are fairly compensated for their work.”