Leader Blues

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

TOP STORY >>Beebe pushes health care plan

By SARA GREENE
Leader staff writer

Attorney General Mike Beebe told doctors and administrators at Reb-samen Medical Center in Jacksonville Monday that if he is elected governor in November, his blueprint for Arkansas health care will bring insurance to more Arkansans, improve services for seniors and direct more federal and state money to school clinics and nursing programs.

Beebe says only one in four small businesses statewide can afford health insurance for employees. The Arkansas Safety Net Benefit Program, a state and federal partnership to help small businesses with fewer than 50 employees provide insurance, is now enrolling members.

Both Beebe and his Republican opponent, Asa Hutchinson vow to expand the program if it proves successful.
“By pooling small businesses’ purchasing power, we can broaden the base of people who are able to pay for their health care,” Beebe told The Leader.

Providing health care for uninured and underinsured patients cost Rebsamen Medical Center $7.7 million in 2005, a slight increase over the $7.5 million spent in 2004. Some of these patients have no insurance at all, while the underinsured have insurance, but can’t afford the deductible or co-pay, the initial out-of-pocket payment re-quired to go to an insurer’s primary care provider.

No patient is turned away from Rebsamen Medical Center based on inability to pay for medical care. Patients who cannot pay are asked to fill out a charity care form to help the hospital keep track of expense. The uninsured and underinsured make up about 35 percent of Rebsamen’s patients.

About 25 percent of the patients pay either with insurance or out of pocket and 6 percent of patients pay for medical care using TRICARE, the insurance benefit for military personnel and their families. The rest of the patients pay for medical care using Medicare or Medicaid. The underinsured or uninsured make up about 41 percent of the hospital’s emergency room patients and there were 23,200 emergency room visits at Rebsamen in 2005.


NOT ENOUGH NURSES

Just getting health care is a challenge for many Arkansans. Beebe estimates six in 10 Arkansans live in medically undeserved areas and the problem is getting worse. “One problem we’re facing as a state is nursing instructors are leaving teaching to go to the clinical side at the same time a large number of the state’s nurses are nearing retirement age,” Beebe said.

In 2004, 793 new registered nurses graduated and were licensed in Arkansas, compared to a need for 1,925 each year.
While Beebe calls for more medical personnel, Hutchinson’s health plan promises more rural health clinics, mobile health clinics to reach underserved areas and non-profit health care coverage programs.


ELDER CARE

The confusion experienced by millions of elderly people nationwide over the Medicare Part D prescription drug program prompted Beebe to include in his plan medical education and training advocates to help the growing geriatric population navigate the increasingly complex world of health care.

By 2025, Arkansas is projected to have the fifth highest number of seniors in the nation. Faced by the staggering costs, both financial and emotional, of putting family members in long-term care facilities such as nursing homes, Beebe said more and more Arkansans are choosing to take care of their loved ones at home.

“Family caregivers for seniors face the challenges of balancing work, personal matters and their role as caregiver,” Beebe said. “By implementing a senior caregiver education program through the Arkansas Centers on Aging, senior caregivers will learn to manage their time, resources and learn how to cope with the needs of an aging family member,” Beebe said. Another part of Beebe’s plan is expanding preventative health care in schools for the state’s 452,000 students by increasing the state funding formula per pupil, which would make the schools eligible for matching federal funds through Medicaid.


OTHER DIFFERENCES

Hutchinson’s plan differs from Beebe’s in several ways including creating a govenor’s council on affordable health care and a Surgeon General position by selecting someone currently within the Arkansas Department of Health and Human Services.

In 2003, Michigan became the first state to establish an office of Surgeon General and has seen positive results in health care reform there, according to Hutchinson’s Web site.

Campaigning mostly on the weekends, such as attending Saturday’s Donkey Day Dinner at Cabot Middle School North hosted by Lonoke County Democrats, Beebe is working to get his health care plan out to voters citing 10 years of experience serving on the Central Arkansas Hospital board of directors in Searcy, before it was purchased by White County Medical Center last year.