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West Virginia hospitals oppose deregulation bill in state Senate

Staff report

The Intelligencer and Wheeling News-Register

WHEELING, W.Va.  — Some hospitals, the West Virginia Hospital Association and Senate Majority Leader Ryan Ferns are battling over a bill that would stop the state from regulating service and facility expansions by hospitals.

Wheeling Hospital officials said Thursday their hospital’s not alone in opposing Senate Bill 395, sponsored by Ferns, R-Ohio. If it becomes law, they say it would lead to layoffs, including at Wheeling Hospital, decreased health care quality and decreased access to health care throughout the state.

“We are opposed to the bill. It will harm employment, it will harm patient services and harm financial stability,” said Gregg Warren, hospital spokesman. “Wheeling Hospital is a very successful, financially stable and top-quality medical center for our region. If you let outsiders come in and open similar services, it decreases the number of patients that come to us, (there would be) layoffs and health care dollars end up going to other states” where outsiders are based.

Warren and Dr. Angelo Georges, Wheeling Hospital chief medical officer, were among hospital officials throughout the state who spoke out against the bill Thursday, a day earmarked as Hospital Day at the Legislature in Charleston. The bill is among the West Virginia Hospital Association’s key legislative priorities.

Ferns said he’s heard hospitals’ fears since he introduced the bill Feb. 22. Those fears, he said, “are based on theory and anecdotal assumptions.”

Ferns said his move to eliminate the certificate of need program is based on research from the state’s legislative auditor, along with a report from the U.S. Department of Justice and a nationwide report on certificate of need programs by the Mercatus Center of George Mason University.

Those reports say eliminating the program will lead to more competition and, thus, higher-quality health services and access to those services.

“We’re talking about a state-run agency that is determining when and where hospitals can spend their money and investment,” Ferns said of the certificate of need requirement. “Having the government artificially decrease competition leads to poor outcomes. Increasing it leads to improved outcomes and access to health care,” Ferns said.

Specifically, SB 395 calls for eliminating the West Virginia Hospital Authority’s “one remaining duty” — overseeing the certificate of need program.

According to the hospital authority website, it’s a regulatory program that ensures health services are provided “in an orderly, economical manner that discourages unnecessary duplication.” Basically, it approves or disapproves hospitals’ applications to expand their facilities or offer new services.

Georges said when there are too many hospitals in an area that offer the same specialized services, then there aren’t enough patients for each hospital to remain proficient at procedures such as surgeries.

“UPMC, for example, could build a hospital, UPMC of West Virginia,” if there were no certificate of need program in the state, he said, adding too much access makes the cost to patients rise.

But Ferns said research shows costs have already risen in West Virginia, to seventh-highest in the country, according to state Auditor Aaron Allred’s report, released in January.

“They’ve found that we have less access to health care, as well,” Ferns said.

The Mercatus Center report shows that “in states that have eliminated certificate of need programs, there is a 30-percent increase in hospitals, per capita,” Ferns said.

Warren said, however, that the quality of health care decreases when there are more providers.

Ferns said the bill is still in the Senate Health and Human Resources Committee. It’s also set to go before the Senate Finance Committee.

For now, Ferns is working on coordinating the Mercatus Center, the U.S. Justice Department and Allred to give presentations to the health committee.

Tony Gregory, vice president of legislative affairs, for the West Virginia Hospital Association, said his group is trying to work through a difficult and complex issue.

“We’re trying to work through it as the issue unfolds. But the thing I do want to say is that Senator Ferns has always been supportive of hospitals and the health care community. As (former) health chairman, he understands the complex issues that we deal with, pertaining to the regulatory environment, reimbursement and day-to-day operational issues,” Gregory said. “So, we hope to keep the dialogue open on this particular issue, because it is important for the hospital community and the delivery of care in West Virginia.”

Gregory said 34 states in the U.S., including West Virginia, have some form of a certificate of need program, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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