Originally created 10/06/04

Hospitals want Medicaid on agenda



AIKEN - Hospitals and medical care providers in Aiken County are struggling to retain doctors and treat the less fortunate because of the rising cost of malpractice insurance and the lack of money available to help Medicaid patients, business and civic leaders said Tuesday.

These increasingly familiar complaints were made at a Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce luncheon, where members of the business community reeled off issues they want state lawmakers to tackle during next year's legislative session.

"We are paid less than half of our costs for children who come in for therapy," said Pat Samuel, the executive director of Hitchcock Healthcare, who spurred lawmakers to reform Medicaid, which is administered by the state Department of Health and Human Services.

She said she's gotten "mixed messages" from state officials.

"They say it's fully funded, but it's not working," she said.

K.D. Justyn, the CEO of Aiken Regional Medical Centers hospital, told chamber officials that reforming medical assistance programs for the poor had to be done at the state level, because the federal government has shown it won't act.

"The reality and silliness of saying Medicaid is fully funded is absolutely appalling," she said.

Sen. Greg Ryberg, R-Aiken, the only local lawmaker who attended the meeting, said he planned to look into the issue and would be reviewing the state's budget in mid-November.

"We can't drop below the level we're at," he said.

Aiken Regional also has physicians who are struggling to stay in the profession because malpractice insurance is increasing at rates between 25 percent and 44 percent, Ms. Justyn said. The hospital recently lost two general practitioners because of rising rates.

"We can talk about health care reform all we want. If we don't have providers, it's meaningless," she said.

To tamp the skyrocketing costs doctors spend on insurance, legislators need to enact tort reform, Ms. Justyn and several business leaders said. The House passed a bill earlier this year that would have capped the amount of money awarded to plaintiffs, but the bill stalled in the Senate.

The South Carolina Chamber of Commerce trumpeted tort reform last year and plans to lobby hard for change again this year, said Otis B. Rawl Jr., the vice president of public policy for that organization. The fight pits business lobbyists against trial lawyers, two of the state's more influential groups.

"It's a battle," Mr. Rawl said. "It's more than that. It's almost a bloodbath."

Improved infrastructure and increased funding for education were among other items that made the chamber's legislative list of chores.

"Obviously, education is base to everything else we do," said Susan Graham, the president of Aiken Technical College.

Reach Josh Gelinas at (803) 648-1395, ext. 113, or josh.gelinas@augustachronicle.com.