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Hospitals seek tobacco tax for Medicaid, PEIA

by Nora Edinger

REGIONAL EDITOR

BUCKHANNON -- A push for cash will top the West Virginia Hospital Association's 2001 legislative agenda, an official said Wednesday.

During a meeting with area legislators and officials from St. Joseph's Hospital of Buckhannon, association Vice President Patricia McGill said hospitals will be after their share of proceeds from specialty taxes and gambling spoils.

"We're going to join the line that will form at the state Capitol with our hand out," McGill said.

Specifically, McGill said association lobbyists are going to pursue such funding initiatives as dedicating the tobacco tax toward Medicaid, using the entire tobacco lawsuit settlement to bolster Medicaid and the Public Employees Insurance Agency, moving funding from a state pop tax from medical school assistance to Medicaid, and securing a portion of the state's lucrative gambling efforts.

"Our whole purpose is going to be enhancing the Medicaid match," McGill said, explaining each state dollar put toward Medicaid would bring three federal dollars back to the state.

McGill said secondary goals are to work toward reducing hospital regulations and to increase the amount of government reimbursement for patient services.

Wayne Griffith, St. Joseph's chief executive officer, told the group that hospital is among those struggling to make ends meet following the 1997 federal Balanced Budget Act. The act limited the amount of Medicare and Medicaid payments to amounts hospital administrators say are well below costs.

St. Joseph's is among 19 rural hospitals Gov. Cecil Underwood recently ordered exempted from the state Health Care Authority's rate-setting regulation. Only West Virginia and Maryland regulate the rates hospitals can charge for patient services.

Griffith said St. Joseph's -- which recently joined Monongalia General and Fairmont General to form the Augusta health care system -- hopes to stabilize a portion of its future income by buying a number of long-term care (nursing home) bed slots from Fairmont to replace a portion of its small psychiatric unit. The state has a moratorium on new long-term care beds, forcing the need to buy another institution's slots.

McGill said while many rural hospital are exploring such strategies to cope with the cash crunch, even larger hospitals are losing money on patient services. As examples, she provided such statistics as: West Virginia hospitals lost $80 million in 1999 and 12 state hospitals have lost money for two years in a row.

State Sen. Mike Ross (D-15th), one legislator who attended the informational session, had a mixed reaction to the lobby agenda.

"Money is not going to solve this problem by itself," Ross said to McGill. "You said you're going to put your hand out. That's going to be one of many hands."

Ross said specific-interest lobbyists need to work together toward a goal of economic development, instead. He said increased prosperity among residents is the only long-term solution toward keeping health care accessible throughout the state.

Regional editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1403 or by e-mail at nedinger@exponent-telegram.com.

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