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Fewer uninsured Americans, but more who can't pay

Lawton_More and more people can't pay their medical bills, and although there are fewer uninsured Americans than only two years ago, hospitals are seeing growing numbers of patients who cannot pay for medical care.  Health care is on the minds of voters across the nation this election year. 

The US Census Bureau says that 3.5 million more Americans had health insurance in 2007 than in 2006, but nearly 46 million more are still uninsured.  What do Lawton hospital officials do if someone doesn't have health insurance?  Doesn't that cost the hospital money?  The answer is yes - millions of dollars each year. 

Comanche County Memorial Hospital (CCMH) officials say they provide more than $3 million per year in charity care, and are owed more than $30 million in bad debt.  Southwestern Medical Center officials say it loses almost $10 million per year.  CCMH began looking at trends, and found an increase in the number of patients unable to pay their bills in April of this year.  "The only thing that we could see is that's about the time prices started going up, gasoline, food supplies, everything started going up at that point in time," said CCMH Chief Financial Officer (CFO) David Blackmon. 

Blackmon says that when the economy doesn't do well, people pay their medical bills last.  "You can get the health care, and you need to spend money on other essentials in life - like food, gasoline, other necessities," he said. 

Officials say that another trend is that employers aren't paying as large a percentage of their employees' health insurance premiums they once did.  "As employers pay less and less, it's more of a burden on individuals," said Southwestern Medical Center CFO George Kruger.  "We spend a lot more time than we have in the past trying to work with those patients to determine how best we can help them." 

Most hospitals have financial counselors and charity policies to help the uninsured.  "We feel like, as an organization, we have a certain responsibility to the community, especially through the emergency room," said Kruger.  However, the emergency room is another cause of trouble for those without health insurance.  30-40% of emergency room patients don't need emergency care, and face much higher bills than if they were to go to a primary care physician.  "The problem is there isn't enough primary care physicians out there," said Blackmon.  "So, one thing we need to do is grow our primary care base of physicians in the community."

Southwestern provides a resource guide for patients to inform them about their primary care options, and medical clinics they can use.  One thing you should not do is delay seeking medical care.  Both hospital officials say that it's better to take care of something small before it worsens, and requires a hospital stay.  They say that preventative care is the best way to take care of health care problems.

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