Local hospital laments economic challenges

Reported by Lauren Lowrey email
Posted by Kate Oatis email

TOLEDO (WTOL) - You'll be hard-pressed to find an industry not affected by this tough economy -- and hospitals fit that bill.

As more workers are laid off, they're losing their healthcare coverage, resulting in millions of dollars in unpaid medical care.

But those people are still getting healthcare -- so who's footing the bill?

At St. Luke's Hospital, the problem is exacerbated by the amount of free care given.

The hospital "lost about $7 million last year from our operations. In large part, it was due to the free care," said Dave Oppenlander, treasurer. "Our charity care is up about 8 or 9 percent from last year."

It's a national trend catalogued by the American Hospital Assn. Two reports released last month show hospitals racked up $34 billion in uncompensated care costs in 2007.

"We're giving away a lot more free care at this point," said Oppenlander. "Unfortunately the hospital has to absorb a lot of that cost."

But there are other reasons for recent losses in hospitals nationwide. Thirty-six-percent of Americans are postponing care, while another 30 percent are skipping tests and treatments altogether.

"Hospitals make their money on elective surgeries, but as more and more people make the decision to save money and not spend it on a surgery, that's where hospitals are losing out," said Daniel Wakeman, CEO of St. Luke's Hospital. "People have become very, very discretionary buyers with some healthcare items."

Couple the national problems with local issues like a shrinking population and recent layoffs at Toledo's biggest employers and you've got several systems fighting for patients.

"We're adjusting just like everybody else in the economy is adjusting. As we find out the new base -- not only the hospital but all industries in this community -- we're gonna have to get there, stabilize, and then start to step out of it," Wakeman said.

St. Luke's expects not to "step out of it" until 2010.