WHEELING - Hospital officials are dealing with the national health care law much like they did last year - by continuing to be fiscally responsible as more is learned about the legislation.
At Wheeling Hospital, CEO Ron Violi said like most hospitals, his facility is focusing on taking care of patients while the government figures out its own health care law, the Affordable Care Act.
"At the end of the day and to survive you have to be fiscally responsible," Violi said. "But with the new health care system, from day to day we don't know how it's going to be. ... When you know what you're rules and regulations are, it's much easier to plan on how to be able to prepare for the future.
Ron Violi, chief executive officer of Wheeling Hospital, stands outside the facility’s new Tower 5 and emergency room.
Barnesville Hospital nurses, from left, Ashley Anderson, Sybil Carpenter, Jodi Gallagher, Frances Lucas and Dinah Britton stand inside one of the facility’s patient rooms.
"We're still up in the air as to what the rules are. And no one seems know what the rules are - including the government. It's a massive law and hard to keep up with."
And hospitals don't have more information about the law than anyone else.
"Right now, we're like everyone else. We're like the general public - we don't know what this new health care law is supposed to do. If you follow the news, it appears the government doesn't know, either. They change it every other day," Violi said.
"Now there are 100 lawsuits or more in courts. ... I think you take it as it comes and keep your people on their toes, and be prepared to react quickly when there is change. The bottom line is patient care is the No. 1 thing we need to worry about. All the rest of this stuff - does it worry you, does it keep you up at night? Yes, but you can't let that happen. You can't let it interfere with patient care. Maybe you're going to lose some money. Maybe the rules are going to be cumbersome and hard to enforce. ... The idea is that you're able to take care of the patient and you're able to do it right," he added.
Violi added many people believe non-profit hospitals don't or shouldn't have a profit margin. But that's a mistake, he said.
"Most hospitals in the country don't make 2 percent, most don't make any money. They're under water," Violi said. "Do we want to be successful and make money? The theory that we have hospitals that don't make any money is bogus. If you don't have any money you can't treat patients adequately. You can't buy the equipment and pay the people who do it. ... You need to at least cover operating expenses."
Violi noted the federal law is supposed to give more people access to health insurance, but some of the numbers aren't adding up across the country.
"We hear more people are going to have health insurance, but when you follow the news we have 2 million people signed up for the health insurance program and 6 million people lost their coverage. That's a net loss of 4 million. I don't think that stuff has happened in West Virginia. We might be one of the lucky places that it's not happening," he said.
But whether a person has health insurance, Violi said, does not matter at the end of the day.
"This is health care. This isn't a car dealership. This isn't a supermarket. We have to take the patient anyway - that's our mission: treat the patient," Violi said.
In Glen Dale, Reynolds Memorial Hospital CEO Jay Prager said the Affordable Care Act will have a "profound effect" on hospitals and health care in general, but over time. By 2018, he added, the government estimates an additional 30 million people will have health insurance, many of whom now only have access to health care via hospital emergency rooms.
"To prepare for the future, hospitals would be wise to emphasize primary care, urgent care and preventive medicine," Prager said. "These are the services that can have the greatest positive impact on people's lives."
Peggy Douglass, director of education and outreach at Barnesville Hospital, said much like every other hospital, Barnesville Hospital is trying to be "prudent in expenditures."
"At this point in time we're status quo. It's had no effect one way or another on us. We're in a holding pattern. We're being cautious because ... no one knows what going on with it," Douglass said.
Douglass said the hospital continues to follow its policies related to patients with no or low insurance. But the hospital's computer system has no way of tracking whether it has had customers with insurance from the federal marketplace.
"We have no way to capture that information," she said.
At Wetzel County Hospital, CEO Brian Felici said it is too soon to determine the long-term impact of the national health care law.
"We are continuing, as we always do, to monitor our revenue and expenses and overall financial performance. We feel like we are positioning ourselves well to absorb any changes that might occur as a result of the health care act. Our staff has already received additional training that allows them to assist patients in qualifying for Medicaid through the ACA," Felici said. "Even in the best of times, we know that the health care environment is volatile. Change is ongoing and we continue to take the necessary actions to assure that we are offering quality health care services to our patients, regardless of what the future holds."