Patty in the News

Insurance may be the most talked-about aspect of the national health-care reform movement, but without more workers in this field America’s health-care system will remain broken.

That was the message U.S. Sen. Patty Murray gave Wednesday to a crowd of health-care professionals at Harrison Medical Center in Bremerton. Murray spoke earlier in the day on the same topic at St. Anthony Hospital in Gig Harbor.

As a senior member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Murray is working on the Affordable Health Choices Act. The bill aims to reduce health-care costs and provide health insurance to those who don’t have it.

A key component, the Democratic senator said, will be making sure enough nurses and doctors are available to provide care.

“We can’t provide meaningful health care reform without a qualified workforce,” Murray said.

Harrison CEO Scott Bosch defined the problem as a train wreck in the offing. The average age of the nursing staff at Harrison, for example, is 50. Twenty percent of those workers are set to retire within five years. At the same time, there’s a rapidly aging population that uses health care at three to four times the rate of the general public.

“That is frightening,” Bosch said.

Harrison is doing its part to attract, train and retain qualified workers. The Harrison Hospital Foundation has launched an $8 million campaign, Great Nurses for a Great Community, to provide nursing scholarships and create a nationally certified nursing residency program at Harrison, among other components.

The widespread lack of primary-care physicians is also a pressing issue, Murray said. Doctors often choose specialty fields in which they can make more money to offset debt most incur during medical school. Lower reimbursement rates for general practitioners is also a disincentive, she acknowledged.

The bill, as currently proposed, addresses the work-force shortage by providing scholarships, grants and help with loan repayment, Murray told the group. The bill includes provisions for training and retention of health-care workers and creates a task force to track what training programs prove most effective.

Dr. Mark Adams, a vascular surgeon at Harrison and member of the board of the American Hospital Association, hammered on the issue of reimbursement, saying it’s not only about the fees physicians get, but the way in which they’re paid for their services per visit.

“There’s no reward for taking good care of patients,” Adams said. “There’s no reward for making people well. There’s no reward for avoiding chronic illness.”

Murray said the Senate Finance Committee is working on the complicated issue of reimbursement. Historically, she said, Medicare rates were set based on use. States like Florida, where health-care use is higher than in the Northwest, were assigned higher reimbursement rates. With inflation, the disparity in rates has widened over time.

“The issue is extremely important to us,” Murray said. “You should be reimbursed on the quality of health care you provide, not on the number of visits.”

The bill also provides incentives for preventive health care that would at least partially address Adams’ concerns, she said.

The committee hopes to complete its draft of the bill before Congress takes its summer recess in August, according to Alex Glass, a spokeswoman for Murray. The finance committee is working on complementary legislation.

- Kitsap Sun