Senator touts hospital funding

AMSTERDAM – U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, spoke Thursday with officials and community members at St. Mary’s Healthcare to announce what Schumer called a “major victory” in legislation to extend two Medicare payment programs.

According to Schumer, the Medicare-Dependent Hospital Program and the Low Volume Hospital Program were originally due to be cut from the national budget. These programs, according to Schumer, were drastically important to small hospitals such as St. Mary’s.

The LVH program affects 18 New York hospitals, providing Medicare support to hospitals that are very important to rural communities but do not necessarily serve a high volume of patients.

The MDH program provides support to seven hospitals in New York that treat a high number of Medicare patients. St. Mary’s Hospital would have lost $1.67 million in funding if the program had been eliminated, according to Schumer’s office.

Schumer said the legislation, which he worked with Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, to produce, extended these programs for an additional year and allow for payments to be retroactive to Sept. 30.

“St. Mary’s Hospital has something to celebrate in 2013, with the extension of two critical Medicare programs that help make high-quality health care a continued reality in our local communities,” Schumer said in a news release.

Schumer said taking care of New York hospitals has been a high priority for him since he became the state’s senior senator in 2000.

“I have made it my mission,” Schumer said.

“For a hospital like St. Mary’s, you have two unique problems,” Schumer said. The first is a large Medicare population, which tends to be more expensive to treat. The other, Schumer said, is the hospital’s overall small number of patients.

“You have to keep a full emergency room, even if it’s a cold winter’s night at 2 a.m. and there is not going to be 20 people coming in by 1 or 2. But it costs just as much to provide that excellent health care,” Schumer said.

The hospital programs, established by Congress in the 1980s, help assist with these problems. There are approximately 200 hospitals labeled Medicare-dependent in the United States, and seven in New York state. The New York hospitals receive $6.9 million annually from this program. These hospitals are paid by Medicare with a special rate to address the fact that most of their patients are Medicare patients.

With the low-volume program, Medicare seeks to pay providers their costs of furnishing services. However, certain factors beyond a provider’s control can affect the costs of furnishing services, such as patient volume.

“It would not be fair to say that if you live in a less populated area, you should get less health care,” Schumer said.

According to Victor Giulianelli, president and chief executive officer of St. Mary’s, the programs affected are vital to the quality of care at the facility.

“All of this could not be possible without the tremendous support we receive from Sen. Charles Schumer,” Giulianelli said at a news conference Thursday. “Without the senator’s ongoing commitment to healthy hospitals and healthy communities, we would not have the resources to achieve these levels of performance for our patients and staff.”

Tonko said without St. Mary’s, Montgomery County would lack decent access to health care. He said bipartisanship helped immensely with the passing of this legislation, but some lawmakers weren’t happy about it.

“Make no mistake about it,” Tonko said. “Partisan politics aside, there are those in Washington today who don’t understand the merit of programs like this. It was a struggle to get the bill passed on the floor a few days ago. So we continue to talk about the priorities that ought to be out there for people who have working families or are retirees.”

Schumer also said he plans to work on providing funding through the Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, a law that requires health insurance plans to cover mental-health conditions on par with medical and surgical conditions.

Schumer said the law was previously underfunded and requires help.

Arthur Cleveland covers Montgomery County news. He can be reached by email at [email protected].

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