Originally created 12/20/96

Indigent answers

New administrator Randy Oliver struck the right chord in his first major public policy advice to the Augusta Commission. And commissioners took it, wisely we think.

After meeting with University Hospital officials over the always contentious issue of how much the hospital should be reimbursed for providing care to indigent patients, Oliver recommended that this year's cap of $2.5 million be retained for now, with a slight upward revision to account for inflation.

Oliver didn't shut the door on University's bid to boost the annual allowance. Instead he urged a six-month audit to analyze the hospital's billing system, costs and charges to determine whether the request - to $3.68 million - is reasonable.

This should please University officials. They asked for the opportunity to make their case, and the Oliver plan gives it to them. The allowance could be increased sometime next year if the audit justifies it. The administrator will also scrutinize University's indigent care debt problem.

"Every hospital to some degree or other gets cases they don't get paid for," Oliver said. "I'd like to know what the bad debt is of the other hospitals because if (University's) bad debt is 6 percent, and the other hospitals' is 6 percent, then (University) is pretty much in the ballpark."

If the debt is higher, then something may be amiss and should be corrected.

We commend Oliver's - and the Commission's - approach to dealing with a complex, contentious problem. Everyone wants to be fair to the hospital, needy patients and local taxpayers. The audit should help ferret out the truth and move that process along.

Another area the administrator should explore to benefit both the local government and the hospital is the availability of money for indigent care - but so far not tapped by local sources - from Medicare, Medicaid and the state.

And there's another possibility: Commissioners could say that if University Hospital wants taxpayers to pay millions more for indigent care, it could be funded by ending University's generous property tax exemption.


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