Monday, July 30, 2007

Columbia St. Mary's Gets a Freebie

Come on, Dorn, get in front of the damn ball. Don't give me this "ole" bullshit!
Lou Brown, Major League

That's the line I kept thinking about while reading this article that appeared in the Journal Sentinel on Sunday. The premise of the article is pretty straightforward -- Columbia St. Mary's is building a new hospital to combine two of its three campuses, and the project is largely on target in terms of time and money.

That's all well and good, but at a couple of important points in the article, comments are slipped in about this project somehow lowering health care costs. The last two lines sum it up the best:
But increasing efficiency is essential in any effort to slow the rise in health care costs. Columbia St. Mary's has repeatedly said the new hospital will help do that, and, so far, it's on track to fulfill that promise.
Let's see. Columbia St. Mary's is constructing a new hospital that cuts patient beds by 33 percent, increases room sizes, makes all rooms private (most with a lake view), includes the latest medical technologies, and focuses on specialty care, and that's supposed to lower health care costs?

Not too surprisingly, the only quotes in the article come from the Columbia St. Mary's CEO and the Columbia St. Mary's COO.

No outside expert voice was quoted, which is something the JS wisely did in the article it was spoon-fed by Columbia St. Mary's and Froedtert a couple of months ago on the still-undefined merger plans (it even published a follow-up emphasizing the question marks surrounding the claims that the merger would lower costs, and both pieces were by the same writer as the article from yesterday).

In actuality, the emphasis on fewer patients, lush surroundings, and more specialty care suggests Columbia St. Mary's is following the nationwide trend toward aiming services at privately-insured patients and away from uninsured and Medicaid patients who tend to have a difficult to impossible time getting access to specialists.

And the simple fact that Columbia St. Mary's will have 1/3 fewer beds under its new set-up may mean lower overall costs for the system, but it doesn't seem likely per patient costs will go down at all. In fact, the emphasis on specialty care -- the most expensive and increasingly expensive kind around -- suggests those per patient costs will actually go up.

What'll also likely go up in this new set-up are the profits reaped by the non-profit health system, which has done pretty well lately as is, taking in a total of $161 million in profits over the past three years alone.

In the end, the suggestion that the direction of Columbia St. Mary's is going to reduce health care costs in any meaningful way for the people of SE Wisconsin is on the verge of ridiculous.

Hopefully the JS will publish a follow-up to flesh out this side of the story.



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