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Future of our hospitals at stake

The battle over rate deregulation for the state's most financially vulnerable hospitals is more about politics than about economic reality.

Three weeks following a gubernatorial election, the state Health Care Authority told hospital officials it did not have the legal power to exempt 19 hospitals per an early fall directive from Gov. Cecil Underwood. Stonewall Jackson Hospital in Weston and St. Joseph's Hospital in Buckhannon were among them.

Noting the date of the announcement does not mean we think the authority is the only one playing politics. Underwood timed his activity for the height of his battle with ultimate victor Bob Wise.

While each side can put plenty of spin on why its stand is the only correct one, we say it's mostly semantics.

Even if each hospital in West Virginia is allowed to set its own rates for privately insured patients -- as 48 other states do -- the high percentage of government-insured patients in this state would severely limit the financial impact of such a freedom.

According to the state Hospital Association, 17 percent of West Virginians have no insurance and 48 percent are covered by Medicare, Medicaid and the state Public Employees Insurance Agency.

The charity cases are 100 percent underfunded, the government-insured cases are 15 percent underfunded overall, association officials say.

The companies that privately insure -- and the businesses and 35 percent of West Virginians who pay for their services -- are not going to be willing to absorb the governmental shortfall, nor should they be.

The real crisis in West Virginia health care is this government underfunding.

Making small stabs at increasing revenue through raising rates for a minority of patients will not fix it.

Now that the election is over -- at least at the state level -- let's work together to fix the real problem in a realistic and fair way.

The future of our hospitals depends on it.

The Exponent Editorial Board consists of James G. Logue, J. Cecil Jarvis, Patrick Martin, Nora Edinger and Kevin Courtney.

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