Hospital officials seek help for ailing health care system

Second District Rep. Rick Larsen, left, spent some time last Friday listening to Scott Rhine, CEO of Whidbey General Hospital, and others express their concerns about the nation
Second District Rep. Rick Larsen, left, spent some time last Friday listening to Scott Rhine, CEO of Whidbey General Hospital, and others express their concerns about the nation's health care system.
— image credit: P. Christine Smith

The health care system on Whidbey Island is sick, and it needs congressional help in healing, said health care officials last week.

Lending an ear in an attempt to help was 2nd District Congressman Rick Larsen.

Scott Rhine, chief executive officer of Whidbey General Hospital, and Kristy Miller, a Whidbey Island Public Hospital District commissioner, were among those invited by the Everett Democrat to a health care roundtable for officials from Island and Skagit counties. Held near Mount Vernon, the roundtable was an opportunity for Rhine and Miller to share their findings and concerns about the health care system on Whidbey Island with Larsen, who pledged to take the information back to Capitol Hill to rally for legislation that will increase Medicare benefits and decrease the amount of paperwork physicians must fill out to get Medicare reimbursements.

Of particular concern at Whidbey General Hospital is the shortage of imaging technology personnel, the inability to appropriately compensate and therefore attract physicians, and the mounds of red tape the hospital must deal with to process Medicare claims. Med-icare is the hospital's biggest long-term concern, Rhine said.

The personnel shortage in diagnostic imaging includes ultrasound, CT scan, MRI, nuclear medicine and X-ray technicians. Whidbey General has 20 people in these positions and four vacancies.

"In terms of diagnostic imaging, there's a shortage," Rhine said. "The number of people in the field is actually increasing, but the demand for those services is increasing faster ... and we haven't been able to keep up with that."

Rhine said he wants to be able to offer job incentives such as training programs and scholarships for those interested in diagnostic imaging. Additionally, Whidbey General Hospital diagnostic imaging managers, along with their counterparts from Skagit Valley Medical Center and Island Hospital in Anacortes, are working with Bellingham Technical College to develop a training program.

While there is no shortage of doctors, Whidbey General Hospital has trouble attracting them, Rhine said. The hospital is now seeking two internists, one ear, nose and throat surgeon, a pediatrician and two family practitioners.

"The issue with the physicians is reimbursement and income," Rhine said.

Doctors' pay from Medicare and commercial health plans is less in Western Washington than elsewhere in the country, he said.

"They could make significantly more money, by going to the Midwest, for example."

Rhine said he can't imagine why doctors here are paid less.

The paperwork required by Medicare is another challenge for Whidbey General Hospital. Keeping abreast of Medicare regulations requires lots of staff time.

"Health care providers spend a huge chunk of time filling out paperwork, instead of providing health care, just so their patients can get basic procedures and medicine covered under their health plans or Medicare," said Charla Neuman, Larsen's press secretary.

The message has been the same at each of the three health care roundtables Larsen held last week.

"The two biggest problems we've heard about at every forum is Medicare reimbursement rates and the amount of time spent filling out paperwork," Neuman said.

Larsen also said the Medicare funding system needs fixing.

"I also heard that the reimbursement rates that our providers receive through Medicare are in such a state that it's making it very difficult for providers to stay in the system," Larsen said.

Medicare reimbursement is a bipartisan issue in Congress, Larsen said, and he is working to rejuvenate the fairness caucus, a body aimed at making Medicare reimbursement more equal from state to state. In some states Medicare reimbursement is higher than in others for the same services.

"The result is seniors in Washington state are unfairly punished because of an inequitable reimbursement formula that pays sometimes half of what seniors in other states are paid," Larsen said.

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