Someone Must Pay

It is no secret that, for the last 12 months or more, Fairfield Memorial Hospital has been gasping for air, struggling like a leg-cramped swimmer in the deep end of the pool to find that golden mean, that safe place where the big toe can just touch bottom. Kept afloat, largely, by a huge influx of cash — $1.2 million – from County Council, the hospital has, slowly but surely, begun to rise above the surface. In addition to plugging some critical holes in the hospital’s vessel, that cash also bought a few courtesies, like the one shown during Monday night’s County Council work session where hospital administrators presented their plans for more serious debt collection for the Council’s consideration.

While it came as no surprise that the hospital incurs some amount of red ink in treating the county’s indigent, the actual figure lost annually was, in fact, staggering. Up to $6 million each year goes out the hospital’s door providing care to a county that is rife with poverty, and the hospital believes that at least some portion of that could be collected.

Maybe it can. And maybe not. It is difficult to imagine that the hospital could squeeze $6 million out of patients’ past-due accounts, but if even a fraction of that can be recovered it may be worth the effort. Just one-sixth of that would go a long way toward stabilizing the hospital.

Exasperating the situation, in Fairfield County far too many patients are using the emergency room as their primary source of care. This is killing the hospital. The free and reduced clinics, such as Eau Claire and Blue Granite, are relatively new options for the needy, but the sooner patients can get used to being treated there the better. And while the hospital administrators may be correct in their assumption that some part of the $6 million can be recouped with more aggressive collection practices, we agree with the sentiments of the Council Chairman: If it helps the hospital, that’s a good thing; if it helps the hospital on the backs of someone who can’t afford to pay, that’s another thing.

And the Councilwoman from District 2 is also correct: The hospital doesn’t need Council’s permission to implement the new policy. But it was certainly nice of them to ask, anyway.

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