Management at Peach Regional Medical Center has made a wise choice to give a potentially bitter bill to some of the 1,500 or so people a month who flock to the emergency room. Starting tomorrow (March 1) a 7 a.m., a new Medical Screening Process will go live. A doctor will see every patient, but those whose condition doesn’t qualify as an emergency will be asked to pay a deposit if they still want treatment at the ER. Those who don’t wish to pay will receive financial counseling and be given a list of area doctors and clinics for further treatment. Those who do ante up will receive treatment, but might have a long wait, while staff treat people with more serious conditions.
The MSP will likely upset that population that’s grown used to using the ER as a free medical clinic — free, that is, for the patients; but it’s been said over and over in discussions of healthcare problems that the ER is the most expensive place to treat anything that isn’t a genuine emergency. PRMC chief Nancy Peed noted today that a visit to a doctor or clinic for a routine illness might cost around $80, but that same visit could cost $300 – $600 at the ER. It helps neither the patient, whose credit will eventually reflect that unpaid bill, nor the hospital, whose bottom line will eventually reflect that unpaid bill.
Let’s also remember that the bill won’t really be unpaid. Someone will pay eventually, either taxpayers or every other patient and insurer who does pay.
Public hospitals have been rolling over for too long against the tide of entitlement. At an earlier meeting with county commissioners, Hospital Authority Chairman Tom Green said PRMC had long been reluctant to ask for money up front for political reasons. There might be protests from advocates for the poor (and there are a lot of poor people and advocates for them in Peach County, especially Fort Valley). These are the advocates who claim moving the hospital is itself discrimination. Imagine the fun they’ll have with PRMC asking people to pay for medical care. The nerve!
Let the protests come. Public hospitals do have obligations to serve the public and the poor, but that doesn’t mean providing treatment on demand to anyone who walks in the door, regardless of the cost or the needs of other, sicker people.
PRMC is in a struggle for survival. Improved financial performance will help get the planned new hospital built, which will allow better service for everyone. With Medicare, Medicaid and private insurers putting the squeeze on PRMC and other hospitals, it’s time for the public to squeeze a little less, for everyone’s sake.
For complete coverage of this month’s hospital authority meeting, see the March 5, 2008 issue of The Leader-Tribune.