SPECIAL REPORT: Movement toward tweaks to Indigent Care Contract - Local news, weather, sports Savannah | WSAV On Your Side

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SPECIAL REPORT: Movement toward tweaks to Indigent Care Contract

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It's no secret, Columbus is wrestling with a budget deficit.  A lot of focus recently has been on the two million dollar shortfall in the city employees' health insurance fund.  
  
At the end of last year Mayor Teresa Tomlinson projected a general fund deficit of six-and-one-half million dollars for fiscal year 2015. 

In December the mayor released a document highlighting areas of potential savings.  In reviewing it, I noticed one of the items on the list was: adjustment of the Medical Center contract.  That refers to a 30-year deal for indigent care made between the city of Columbus and the Medical Center Authority in 1992. 

The contract includes inpatient and certain outpatient hospital care for the poor in Muscogee County as well as the county's prison population...that care to be provided by the Medical Center. 

So what formula is used to determine how much the city pays for these services?  According to the contract, that number is derived by multiplying three mills times the taxable value of Columbus' real and property tax digests.  Over the last two years that has amounted to right at $13 million a year.  

From the outset the contract had opposition.  Mayor Tomlinson told me, "The city attorney at the time advised that we not enter into such a contract.  I think in retrospect there were some very good reasons for that.  One, it was weighted very heavily toward the Medical Center, obviously, in how it was drafted."
 
The mayor says the city should only have to pay three mills on the property taxes collected.  "There's an inflation there that's significant, about $500,000 or so a year that we pay in excess of what we actually would."

The mayor also has concerns about billing for services rendered to those defined in the contract as indigent.  She says, "Many people who fit that definition are also eligible for Medicare or Medicaid.  So often we wonder if we're not getting billed for things that there are other providers for."

Another factor Tomlinson feels will have to be figured into the equation is the impact of the Affordable Care Act.  The mayor states, "Its objective is to eliminate uninsured persons.  And so let's just assume for a moment that it's effective in doing that and there are no more uninsured persons.  Well, then there is no need for the contract."

Twenty-two years into the contract, there appears to be a window opening for some changes, however minor.  Mayor Tomlinson says she's been talking with the CEO of Midtown Medical Center Chuck Stark.  In fact, shortly after his arrival in Columbus, the mayor says Stark asked her what kind of future she saw for the Medical Center and the city.  She said she told Stark, "If we don't do something about the resentment that's building related to the inefficiencies and perceived unfairness of this contract, I'm afraid the future will hold a severing of the relationship and I don't know how healthy that is for the community."

Chuck Stark would not go on camera to discuss this subject.  He did release a statement but would not take any questions about it.  The statement said in part, "Recognizing many changes have occurred in healthcare since the creation of the Muscogee County Indigent Care Program agreement in 1992, Mayor Tomlinson and I have engaged in conversations around how best to ensure value and access to care for those county residents eligible to participate." 

Stark sent me figures recapping the services provided by the Medical Center under the contract last year.  According to his figures, 2,866 people were treated at a cost of $24,691,738.  That's almost twice what the city paid to the Medical Center under the contract last year. 

Stark also says that total does not count indigent patients treated in the emergency room.  He says those charges are written off as charity care.  

Mayor Tomlinson believes the negotiations with the Medical Center will result in some type of compromise, and possibly soon.  "It will not be anything hugely dramatic or that completely rewrites the contract obviously.  But I think it will address some of our biggest concerns and make those concerns a lot more palatable to council and the taxpayers."

Suffice it to say, the mayor told me it's out of the question that the city would ever consider a long-term contract such as this again. 

News 3 will continue to follow this story and report on any proposed changes that may result from discussions between the mayor and Mr. Stark.

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