Health & Hospitals

10/12/2009: Impact of Health-care Reform on Savannah’s Economy Could Be Significant

Category: Health & Hospitals

Health-care reform dominates the national news and the conversation at the local office water cooler, serving as a controversial battleground between Democrats and Republicans.

However, health industry reform is an issue that transcends partisan politics and could have a significant impact on Savannah’s economy. An estimated 18 percent of Georgia residents are currently uninsured, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, a figure that is significantly higher than the national average. Locally, many workers struggle to make ends meet as the cost of care rises, while others face losing insurance as businesses scramble to cover employees.

The question of whether health care is a right or a privilege forms the crux of the debate, with reformers arguing that all Americans are entitled to quality health care and opponents maintaining that it’s not the government’s role to fund an expensive and potentially ineffective national health-care system.

“It’s a tough issue, no matter how you look at it,” said Mills Fleming, a health-care attorney at HunterMaclean in Savannah. “There’s no easy solution.”

According to the Center for Financing, Access and Cost Trends, health insurance premiums for Peach State residents have risen 88 percent since 2000. Through health insurance reform, the Obama administration estimates that as many as 1.5 million middle-class Georgia residents would be eligible for premium credits to ease the burden of these high costs. Plus, health-care reform would offer medical coverage for the uninsured, allowing Georgia’s 147 hospitals and more than 23,000 physicians to better care for their patients.

The Obama administration has emphasized its commitment to working with Congress to pass comprehensive health reform in order to control rising health-care costs, guarantee choice of doctors and assure high-quality, affordable health care for all Americans.  Comprehensive health reform, if successful, would strive to reduce long-term growth of health-care costs for businesses and government, protect families from bankruptcy or debt because of health-care costs, guarantee choice of doctors and health plans and ensure affordable, quality health coverage for all Americans.

“From a policy standpoint, it’s a wonderful idea,” said Fleming. “But in its implementation it will fail because the costs will be absolutely astronomical. This would be the biggest federally funded program ever, costing more than $1 trillion.

If Congress passes a bill for health-care reform, the impact on Savannah’s medical community and the local economy could be significant. A national health-care program could benefit Savannah’s hospitals, like Memorial Health, since they could receive additional reimbursement for indigent care. At the same time, hospitals have fixed expenses, from personnel to medical supplies, that cannot be significantly reduced without compromising the quality of patient care.

“If things continue the way they are, hospitals will continue to struggle with basic operational costs,” said Fleming. “What it takes to save a life, from the order entry clerk to the doctors who treat you when you have a gunshot wound, comes with a significant price tag attached.”

In addition to hospitals, Savannah’s small-business owners could benefit from health-care reform. With tax credits and a health insurance exchange where they can shop for health plans, insurance coverage would become more affordable for small companies across the region.

Dr. Todd Williamson, president of the Medical Association of Georgia, believes that giving patients the right to enter into private contractual agreements with their physicians is the single most important step that lawmakers can take to reform the country’s health-care system.

“We must transform the health insurance model into one that’s owned and controlled by patients,” he said. “Most Americans receive their health-care coverage through a third party, which means their health-care decisions are influenced by their employer or the government. People should be able to purchase the health insurance product that best fits their individual needs.”

However, Georgia’s First City faces a unique set of challenges when it comes to health care. “Savannah’s population is very eclectic in terms of its social makeup,” said Fleming. “We have a high degree of poverty and uninsured people – higher than the national average.”

As a result, a one-size, federally mandated health-care program may not be effective in the Coastal Empire. “What works in Cleveland, Ohio, may not work here in Savannah,” he said. “Whatever comes out of Washington will affect everyone equally, even though every hospital and every doctor isn’t facing the exact same challenges when it comes to health care.”

Whether or not health-care reform measures pass Congress this year, quality medical care remains a key way for Savannah to compete economically. “You have to have outstanding health care to attract businesses and jobs,” said Fleming. “No one is going to move here if we don’t have good hospitals and doctors.”

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