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General to remain charitable

Spokespeople for hospital and Community Health Systems say existing programs likely to stay.

WILKES-BARRE – One concern raised by the planned sale of Wilkes-Barre General Hospital to a for-profit company is whether health care will continue to be available to those without insurance or financial resources.

All hospitals that accept payment from federal programs such as Medicare must provide emergency care to everyone regardless of their ability to pay so that a minimum level of charity care is certain.

“We’re all bound by the same federal law,” said Community Health Systems, Inc. spokeswoman Rosemary Plorin. But beyond that, “we almost always adopt the existing charity care policy of the acquired hospital.”

General Hospital recently instituted a reduced-price plan for patients who do not have insurance and who cannot afford the full cost of their treatment. Dr. Susan Sordoni, who spearheaded formation of the Volunteers in Medicine Clinic that opened in June, had prodded the hospital to adopt the plan.

“It’s (care) exactly like what everybody else gets,” Sordoni said, with patients paying according to their ability. “We’re very pleased with that.”

Hospital spokesman Jim McGuire said it’s his understanding that Franklin, Tenn.-based Community Health will continue that program. “CHS would continue all of our policies regarding charity care,” he said.

While federal law and state licensing rules mandate the provision of emergency care, in reality follow-up visits are generally covered, said Jim Redmond, senior vice president of legislative services for the Hospital & Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania.

“Once you start care it’s tough to stop it,” he said, since the provider could be held liable if a patient’s condition worsened after being denied additional treatment.

Redmond said 16 percent of Pennsylvania hospitals are for-profit, and “frankly there’s not much of a difference” in the level of charity care compared to non-profits. “They continue to treat their community.”

One catch could be that hospitals can’t be expected to provide charity care that is not available to paying patients. “The one to watch for is obstetrical care,” Redmond said, because it is difficult to find doctors and generally loses money. One of every three births in Pennsylvania is paid at low Medicaid rates, he said.

But Redmond doubted a hospital the size of General would stop providing obstetrics. “So much of it depends on where you’re located and the economic situation of the community.”

Funded entirely by donations and grants, the Volunteers in Medicine Clinic focuses on preventive care for the working poor. Sordoni is hoping General will make presently unaffordable laboratory and basic diagnostic services available.

“If someone needs a chest X-ray in a hurry there’s no reason to send them to the ER,” she said. Having those services available would improve care while reducing pressure on already-crowded emergency departments.

“We are eager to work with the new administration and are hoping the community-minded spirit of everyone in health care will continue,” Sordoni said.

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