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News Record: Affiliation could be a shot in the arm
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News Record: Affiliation could be a shot in the arm

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GILLETTE (May 1) — It’s no secret that a depressed local economy, coupled with an alarming plunge in Campbell County’s assessed valuation, is squeezing our local health care system like a hungry boa constrictor.

In 2015, the county was flush with cash riding a record high assessed valuation of $6.2 billion. With its 3 mills of tax revenue, that meant more than $18 million for Campbell County Health. Six short years later, the county’s assessed valuation is expected to come in at about $3.4 billion this year, a drop of about 45% with an expected tax assessment of $10.2 million for CCH.

Add a local economy squeezed by a prolonged coal downturn, last year’s oil bust and the COVID-19 pandemic, CCH is incurring more bad debt from people who can’t pay. If it weren’t for CARES Act money, the organization would have lost more than $3 million this fiscal year.

That’s why we’re encouraged to see Campbell County Health’s administration and board of trustees seriously considering an affiliation with UCHealth, a Colorado-based system that’s a regional giant in the health care industry.

Any efficiencies CCH can achieve by partnering with UCHealth will not only help with the bottom line, they’ll also bring welcome improvements for patients.

For example, it would be an understatement to say that people here have for years been frustrated with Campbell County Health’s billing system. No matter how the system’s been tweaked or overhauled, the kinks never seem to get worked out, and the complaints continue in a steady stream.

One of the keys to the affiliation would be CCH gaining access to UCHealth’s EPIC system, an electronic health records system that’s head and shoulders above what CCH has now.

Along with the financial savings that comes with better purchasing power through a larger health care organization for supplies and other expenses is a benefit in recruiting talented doctors and practitioners. On its own, Gillette can be a hard sell, while an affiliation with a large regional organization can make rural destinations like Campbell County not seem like being relegated to a health care desert.

But the most important reason we support this affiliation is because our local administration and board of trustees has remained adamant that it in no way obfuscates the autonomy of our organization. This isn’t a takeover and the deal doesn’t include UCHealth assuming leadership of our hospital. It’s basically contracting for services, with benefits.

“CCH has been exploring how to elevate the care that we provide our patients and the community while maintaining our independence and autonomy,” said trustee chairman Adrian Gerrits about the potential affiliation.

What UCHealth gets out of the deal is simple: when people need care outside what CCH can provide, its system is the first to be recommended.

The hard truth is with significantly less tax revenue coming in because of the drop in assessed valuation and a continued squeeze on the local economy, rural health care systems are especially vulnerable. We need to be as proactive as possible to make sure ours doesn’t become another negative statistic in the tally of closed hospitals.

Add that COVID-19 relief money that has propped up health care systems across the United States can’t be counted on in the long term, and an affiliation with a larger provider while keeping our autonomy seems a prudent proactive move.

If you don’t think our hospital could ever close, think again. Since 2005, nearly 180 rural U.S. hospitals have closed and more than 450 are at risk of closing, according to the Chartis Center for Rural Health, an industry watchdog group. In many cases, struggling rural hospitals are forced to sell to larger organizations that elect to close them and funnel patients to their larger facilities rather than keep them open.

As much as people like to gripe about CCH, its billing system and how much greener the health care outlook is in other pastures, not having a locally controlled Campbell County Memorial Hospital would be devastating on many levels.

The Gillette News Record is the newspaper of record in Campbell County.

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