Herrera Beutler talks health care at Willapa

SOUTH BEND — Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler finished up a two-day tour of three critical access hospitals around Southwest Washington with a visit to Willapa Harbor Hospital Wednesday afternoon.

The first-term Republican, who is seeking a second term, also visited Morton General Hospital in Morton on Tuesday and Ocean Beach Hospital in Ilwaco Wednesday morning.

“Being able to ask the questions on the ground to people who live with the health care policies helps when I’m making decisions on bills, reports and studies,” she said. “It makes me think what is going to happen to the gal who works in the emergency room for 30 years. If we implement a new policy, can she still do her job effectively?”

Herrera Beutler says the messages among the three hospitals is the same: Don’t cut our funding and allow more flexibility on ever-changing hospital regulations.

Hospital Commissioner Dave Vetter, one of the commissioners overseeing Willapa Harbor Hospital, told the congresswoman that the federal bureacracy particularly around Medicare audits is bogging down the work the hospital does.

“All of a sudden it’s not what’s best for the patent, it’s what is cost-effective,” Vetter said, of paperwork changes. “The attitude is: it doesn’t matter if it’s going to take away from that patient at some level. They say, ‘We’re trying to find something, but we don’t know what it is, so give us more data.’ It takes away from our primary role, which is health care. I think people at higher levels lose sight of that. You have people making decisions that have never come down to walk the halls with the nurses.”

“I hear frustrations a lot in the health care industry about people making rules without understanding the consequence,” Herrera Beutler said of what she called “frivolous rules and regulations.”

“Our staff seems to spend more time trying to figure out reporting rules than actually serving patients,” Hospital CEO Carole Halsan told the congresswoman.

Fellow Hospital Commissioner Scott McDougall noted Willapa Harbor Hospital has embraced some of the new regulations, such as digitizing hospital files and making them more user-friendly for patients. However, the process has become time-consuming for the hospital’s small staff.

Halsan said that the digital record standard has increased the time of Emergency Room visits by about 15 minutes, although McDougall said he saw some difference when he sprained his ankle a couple weeks ago and went to the hospital and then had a follow-up visit to the hospital on Wednesday.

“I can see a real difference between how things worked then and now,” he said. “It’s starting to become second nature for the staff.”

Halsan and Hospital Chief Financial Officer Phil Hjembo told Herrera Beutler they were concerned about proposed federal cuts to the Medicare reimbursement rate the hospital gets.

Herrera Beutler said the proposed cuts comes in President Obama’s fiscal 2013 budget. She didn’t believe it had much support in either party. It’s unclear how those cuts would trickle down to Willapa Harbor Hospital, hospital officials said, but they added that they are worried.

Halsan said that the situation makes her concerned especially after fighting off state cuts proposed by Gov. Chris Gregoire, which would have meant an 11 percent reduction to the Medicaid reimbursement rate the hospital gets from the state. That would have been a hit of more than $1 million to the hospital’s $14 million budget — enough, Halsan said, to shut the hospital’s doors. Hjembo said they would have been lucky to survive seven to eight months. Many local legislators didn’t support the plan and ensured it didn’t survive in the final budget appropriations.

Herrera Beutler asked for a status update on what happened with the state.

Halsan said that instead of doing the cuts, a study was authorized to see how the cuts would specifically impact the state’s 38 critical access hospitals. She said she’s still nervous on what the study will say and what the Legislature will do with it next year.

“We are 35 miles away from another hospital, but people are sometimes unable to get there during winter,” Halsan said.

Herrera Beutler said she will fight to ensure critical access hospitals continue to receive the funding they need. She pointed out that the majority of patients seen at Ocean Beach Hospital are on Medicare, while the total number of patients on Medicare at Willapa Harbor Hospital exceeds 55 percent.

After the meeting, Herrera Beutler said she doesn’t support proposed cuts to Medicare made by the Congress’ chief budget writer and Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan. But she does appreciate Ryan putting a plan out there for discussion.

The Ryan plan would leave Medicare the way it is for those already 55 years or older. When those who are younger reach retirement age, the Ryan plan would offer vouchers in the form of a fixed amount of dollars to pay for health insurance on the private market.

If the vouchers don’t cover the total cost of insurance, the potential retiree would have to dip into his or her own pocket to cover the balance.

“I look at the Paul Ryan proposal, and maybe it’s not perfect but it’s the only proposal that anyone has written down and say ‘let’s have a debate,’ ” Herrera Beutler said. “And I think it will change. It’s not going to become law, but it started a very, very important debate and now the average person is learning about the problem. … I do think that if we don’t do something in the next 10 years, then every politican should be strung up. Regardless of whether the president gets a second term, he’s out of office in 10 years and to do nothing is unconscionable. I don’t care what party you’re from. …

“There are a couple definites in my mind,” she added. “People who have paid into this program their whole life deserve to get the benefit when it’s their time. We do have 10,000 people retiring everyday. People will pay in an average $100,000 to $150,000 and they will pull out on average between $300,000 to $400,000. … Those are facts. So we policy makers have to have a non-partisan conversation to do the right thing to protect the program.”

Herrera Beutler is 33 years old. Asked if she thinks there will be some kind of Medicare program by the time she’s ready to retire, she says, “At this point, if we do nothing, I don’t know.”

Herrera Beutler recently received 56 percent of the vote in the 3rd Congressional District’s primary. The district stretches from Pacific County to Wahkiakum, Cowlitz, Clark, Skamania, Lewis, Klickitat and part of Thurston county. She’ll face Democrat Jon Haugen, a retired Navy pilot from Vancouver, who garnered 37 percent of the vote.

In a campaign statement, Haugen also condemned the Ryan Medicare proposal saying it “punishes the elderly, the poor, students and the disabled while giving tax breaks to the rich but not balancing the budget until the year 2040.”