St. Vincent Healthcare officials, Tester discuss federal health care funding cuts

Billings Gazette

by Eddie Gregg

Two leaders of St. Vincent Healthcare sat down with U.S. Sen. Jon Tester on Wednesday and aired their concerns about how looming cuts to federal health care funding could impact Montana hospitals.

“The finances side of health care is just one of those things that we have to recognize, we have to deal with and we appreciate all the support you’ve given,” Mike Foster, regional director of advocacy for St. Vincent, told the senator after taking him on a tour of the St. Vincent Frontier Cancer Center.

Michael Bush, St. Vincent’s chief medical officer, said some of the key things hospitals in Montana and across the country are dealing with is funding cuts to Medicaid and Medicare.

St. Vincent Healthcare alone is facing $80.5 million in existing regulatory Medicare cuts from 2013 through 2022, Bush and Foster said, citing data from the Association of Montana Health Care Providers.

Over the same time frame, additional Medicare cuts being considered by Congress could hit St. Vincent for about $28.8 million, they said.

“So this is real money that we’re talking about,” Foster said.

They also discussed the impacts of cuts in federal funding for critical-access hospitals, which are intended to provide essential health care to rural communities.

“We work extensively with rural Montana,” Foster said, and critical-access hospitals are “absolutely critical to our ability to provide good-quality health care to the people of Montana and the region.”

Foster and Bush also shared a document with Tester that outlines five hospital-related bills they support that are before Congress, including the DSH Reduction Relief Act.

The bill, introduced by Democratic Rep. John Lewis, from Georgia, is intended to do away with the first two years of the Affordable Care Act’s “cuts to the Medicare and Medicaid DSH programs to allow expansion of health coverage to become more fully realized,” the document stated.

“Because, as you recall, the way the Affordable Care Act works is that the increased coverage would coincide with reduced Medicare payments to hospitals,” Foster said. “Now, with the combination of equipment delay and Montana not doing the Medicaid expansion, we’re seeing the cuts, but we’re not seeing the increased coverage.”

To address the issues Bush and Foster raised, Tester said he would review the bills they brought to his attention and that he would be in communication with relevant government agencies, in particular the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, about how health care “implementation is going and how it’s moving towards the future.”

“I think we’ve got to continue to make sure the health care bill gets enacted in a way that works not only for the patients, but also for the hospital,” he said.

“We’ve got to continue to pay attention to the challenges in rural America, critical-access hospitals in particular.”

“Communication is going to be critical as we move forward, and I think that was confirmed today,” Tester said, after touring the center.

Ben Marchello, one of six cancer doctors at the center, led Tester on a tour of the facility, showing off cutting-edge, multi-million-dollar radiation equipment on the first floor and the spacious, well-lit chemotherapy treatment space on the upper floor.

St. Vincent Healthcare paid $3.3 million for a 50 percent share of the cancer center at the end of last year and took over operation of the 39,000-square-foot facility.

Marchello told Tester that his favorite part of the cancer center is the spacious chemotherapy treatment area for patients on the second floor of the facility.

“That’s what we really like,” Marchello said. “If they spend four hours, six hours getting an IV (of chemotherapy) they can look out to the South Hills.”