Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Guest article: Houghton County Medical Care Facility: Public option faces crucial battle

By Rick Kasprzak*

This year’s election contains a ticking time bomb. The future of the Houghton County Medical Care Facility (HCMCF) is at stake, and few people know about it.

The millage which supports the HCMCF is due to expire in 2016. At stake is the future care for seniors in Houghton and Keweenaw counties. There have been prior rumblings among some of the candidates for the County Board of Commissioners who would sacrifice the future of seniors in Houghton and Keweenaw counties for the promise of lower property taxes. Current Houghton County District 1 candidate Eugene Londo said in a radio interview which aired Oct. 5 he, "would like to make it as much of a stand-alone operation as possible." This is a case of tilting at windmills.

The HCMCF, located in Hancock, is one of the largest of the 197 publicly funded medical care facilities in Michigan -- serving about 400 of the senior citizens of Houghton and Keweenaw counties. Keweenaw County provides a portion of the funding to the HCMCF in order to maintain 15 beds there for Keweenaw County residents.

The HCMCF is there for mainly elderly residents who don’t have the means to provide for their own care in a private facility. A bed at a privately owned senior center in the area costs in the neighborhood of $250/day. That’s a neighborhood not many residents on fixed incomes can afford.

"We’ve taken residents when other facilities have turned them down," explained Administrator Tammy Lehto. "We do not require proof of ability to pay in order to receive services." The only reason patients are turned down at the HCMCF is, "if we are medically unable to provide for their care," according to Lehto.

In turn this means the HCMCF is able to serve a population which otherwise may not be able to receive services.

"Roughly 80 percent of our patients are on Medicare," Lehto said. "This is a segment of the population which has traditionally been underserved."

The advantage of maintaining public support of the facility lies in the reimbursement rate from the federal government. The Medicaid/Medicare program has two different levels of payment. A private facility is reimbursed at a lower rate than a facility such as the HCMCF, which gets roughly 10 percent of its operational budget from the millages raised in Houghton and Keweenaw counties.

The reimbursement rate from the federal government is higher for a publicly funded facility than it is for a privately run facility, resulting in about an extra $400,000 in federal taxes being returned to the area.

"I would like it to be as much of a stand-alone operation as it can be," Londo said.

Since forcing the HCMCF off of public funding would result in the loss of the $400,000 of our federal tax dollars returning to the area, it would be a case of cutting off our nose to spite our face.

In addition, the HCMCF is one of the largest employers in the area -- employing about 300 people.

Lehto said historically that has allowed the HCMCF to prevent employee turnover, which is crucial to better care for our elderly residents.

"Better wages and benefits allow us to retain our employees, who in turn are able to provide better care. We have a very low turnover rate here," Lehto noted. "We have a very high satisfaction rating among our patients and their families."

The other advantage of being a publicly funded operation is the ability to plan for the future needs of Houghton and Keweenaw County residents. The HCMCF is planning a future expansion, one that may need to be put on hold until the millage question is settled in the 2016 election.

"Having that public funding has allowed better planning for the future needs of the residents of Houghton County," Lehto added. "We can be creative and stay at the forefront of meeting the changing needs of the residents of both counties."

For example, while traditionally a long term care facility, the HCMCF has seen an increase in people requiring short term care for such things as physical therapy. Lehto said the facility is considering adding an entire floor devoted to physical therapy, and the foundation for that expansion was laid as far back as the 1970s. When the facility was built, the design incorporated a structure that would allow additional floors to be built above the existing ground level.

All of a sudden, candidate Londo’s statement in his Oct. 5 radio interview that he’s "not opposed to selling the Medical Care Facility," sounds extremely dangerous.

Inset photo: Rick Kasprzak volunteers at the Houghton County Democratic Party's booth during the August 2014 Houghton County Fair. (Photo by Keweenaw Now)

* Editor's Note: Guest author Rick Kasprzak, vice-chair of the Houghton County Democratic Party, is a candidate for District 1 (Calumet Township and Hancock Township) Houghton County commissioner. A fundraiser for Kasprzak's campaign is being held at 6:30 p.m. TONIGHT, Tuesday, Oct. 21, at Carmelita's in Calumet. Click here for more information.

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