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Requests for financial assistance swell at Illinois hospitals

Across Illinois in 2010, requests for financial assistance at hospitals swelled as jobs and health insurance benefits shriveled, leaving fewer people able to pay their medical bills.

“We’re hearing from hospitals that they’re having record numbers of people needing charity and record numbers of people on Medicaid,” said Howard Peters, executive vice president of the Illinois Hospital Association.

A report the organization released in mid-December found the 109 Illinois hospitals that filed community benefit reports for their 2008-09 fiscal years (a little more than half its 200 hospital members) together dispensed $492 million in free and discounted care that year — $72 million more than the previous year.

Those hospitals also sustained $2.39 billion in uncompensated costs for people on government-sponsored health plans for the needy and elderly — Medicaid and Medicare — $150 million more than the previous year, along with $1.1 billion in bad debt.

A big factor in more uncompensated Medicaid costs is more Medicaid patients, many of them children.

Medicaid enrollment in 2010 was at 2.6 million, a record high, according to the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services.

Peters said hospital emergency rooms continue to be the fallback care provider for the uninsured who can’t get care elsewhere.

“When people don’t have primary care, they tend to get sicker because their conditions don’t cure themselves,” he adds.

Illinois Hospital Association spokesman Danny Chun said it’s up to each hospital to do its own community needs assessment and establish the best way it can meet those needs with the resources it has.

At Sarah Bush Lincoln Health Center in downstate Mattoon, it used to be the hospital could expect about 200 patients a month applying for charity care.

Then, about midsummer 2009, it started to be more like 300 a month.

Starting last year, free and discounted care — with some exceptions — was restricted to patients coming from a seven-county area.

“It has not made much of a difference,” Sarah Bush Lincoln’s Vice President of Financial Services Craig Sheagren said.

It is currently writing off more than 4 percent of its revenues for financial assistance — 45 percent more than in 2008 and double what it was in 2006, Sheagren said.

-- AP

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