KERN COUNTY: Ailing Rural Hospitals May Receive Relief
California's ailing rural hospitals may be getting a "financial respite" through the Medicare restoration package, the Bakersfield Californian reports. Administrators at the hospitals suggest that the break may arrive just in time to save many of the faltering facilities. According to a study released earlier this month by the California Healthcare Association, five rural state hospitals have closed since 1996 while 10 others have declared or are planning to declare bankruptcy. Though none of the closures have occurred in Kern County, many of the county's hospitals have teetered on the edge of financial disaster. Kern Valley Hospital in Mountain Mesa suffered its worst fiscal year in 1999; nearly half of the hospital's patients rely on Medicare. Hospital CEO Bob Knight said, "Rural district hospitals got [hit by the Balanced Budget Act of 1997] the worst. We don't have enough of a base to spread a loss on." However, he insists that the hospital must remain open, as the 24 acute care beds are almost always full and the 74-bed nursing facility has a 104-patient waiting list. Also struggling is Ridgecrest Regional Hospital. While some of the financial blame is attributed to the cutbacks, CEO David Mechtenberg said that underutilization plagues the not-for-profit, 80 bed facility. Kern County's Tehachapi Hospital also has faced an increase in the number of unoccupied beds, partly due to its short distance from other facilities in nearby Bakersfield (Terwilleger, 12/17). Despite the bleak financial situation in rural hospitals, some help may be on the way. Congress has restored nearly $17 billion of the $50 billion in Medicare cutbacks (Stockton Record, 12/20). Under the revised plan, hospitals in rural and isolated areas will be allowed to apply for a Critical Access Hospital designation to circumvent some of the federal regulations. In addition, Medicare reimbursement levels may be increased as they will be based on the hospitals' actual costs. Knight indicated that the financial future of Kern Valley Hospital depends on the designation, as the facility would receive $1.2 million annually. "That's the light at the end of the tunnel. If I didn't see a way out of this box (financial crisis), I would be reluctant to keep struggling," Knight said (Bakersfield Californian, 12/17).This is part of the California Healthline Daily Edition, a summary of health policy coverage from major news organizations. Sign up for an email subscription.