Tuesday, August 25, 2009
By ANTHONY A. MESTAS
THE PUEBLO CHIEFTAIN
August 25, 2009 12:03 am
WALSENBURG – U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet met with doctors, nurses and administrators at three Southern Colorado health care facilities Monday to discuss rural health care and to hear concerns and problems facing small facilities.
In Walsenburg and other rural areas across the nation some people who can afford doctors often can’t find them and others are too poor to afford care. It’s a problem that took up most of the hourlong discussion at Spanish Peaks Regional Health Center.
Bennet heard from about 20 medical personnel, physicians and nurses that the problem was at times overwhelming.
He started his trip Monday morning making stops at the Spanish Peaks Regional Health Center and the Colorado State Veterans Nursing Home, which are located on the hospital campus three miles west of Walsenburg.
He then traveled to Westcliffe to meet with doctors at the Custer County Medical Center.
The sweep through Southern Colorado was part of the senator’s tour over Congress’ August break.
“In Colorado’s rural areas, doctors and nurses do everything they can to make sure their patients get the best care possible. As we talk about health care reform, we need to make sure they have a voice in the debate and that any reform makes sense for rural Colorado,” Bennet said in a statement released Monday afternoon.
Dr. David Zehring, chairman of the hospital district board in Walsenburg, said that financial viability is a large problem in Huerfano County.
“Huerfano County is one of the poorest counties in the state per capita by income. We have a large number of people with no insurance and a large number of people covered by Medicare, which ordinarily does not cover the cost of rendering patient’s care,” Zehring explained.
“Nevertheless, unlike primary care practices in more affluent communities like Colorado Springs, Fort Collins, Denver and even Pueblo, our physicians can’t turn anyone away based on their ability to pay. We are a special district hospital therefore we are mandated and we are happy to take care of everyone who comes to us with medical problems.”
Zehring, who is not currently a practicing physician, said that the rule results frequently in the hospital’s inability to get paid for treatment, “the main struggle that rural health care deals with on a daily basis.”
He said that he and others would support an adjustment of the reimbursement schedule for Medicare and Medicaid.
“That adjustment would increase reimbursement for primary care and balance that with a reduction in payment for some of the medical and surgical specialties that frequently receive sometimes 10 times as much on a per-hour basis for their services than primary care does.”
Zehring, who spent his career in Seattle, said rural medicine also confronts a difficulty in recruiting primary care physicians, many of whom “don’t see themselves living in a small town” and even if they do, cannot make a living.
Dr. Michael Moll, a Walsenburg hospital physician, said that he thought the meeting showed the problems on Colorado’s rural medical front.
He said that primary care has been undermined by health insurance companies denying payment for services to physicians and hospitals.
“Private practice primary care can no longer survive with the payer-mix population that exists in rural Colorado, Moll said.
Moll, who has been a Walsenburg physician for the past 12 years, said the few instances he sees that this works is when doctors can go to a big city and “cherry pick” their insurance companies.
Bennet addressed the need to improve access to care in rural areas, the shortage of primary care physicians and other health care providers and the need to improve the use of clinical preventive services.
He also talked about the Bennet-Roberts amendment to the budget resolution, which ensures that health reform increases funding to fix access problems in rural communities, including access to primary care and outpatient services, hospitals and an adequate supply of providers in the work force.
Additionally, Bennet co-sponsored the Murkowski-Murray amendment to the budget resolution, increasing funding by $100 million for the National Health Service Corps program, which supplies primary care and mental health providers to rural and medically underserved communities through scholarship and loan repayment assistance. Bennet also co-sponsored the Craig Thomas Rural Hospital and Provider Equity Act, which would provide much needed improvements to Medicare reimbursements for rural providers.
Zehring said that he and others who attended the meeting Monday were happy with Bennet’s efforts.
“He was very open and he asked excellent questions and I felt like he was genuinely interested in what we had to say,” Zehring said.