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Mayor: Valley program could solve health care crisis

By William K. Alcorn

Saturday, September 6, 2008

By William K. Alcorn

In 2007, HMHP, Forum Health and Ohio North East Health System provided a combined $81.2 million in charity care.

YOUNGSTOWN — The solution to the national health-care crisis could start right here in the Mahoning Valley, said Youngstown Mayor Jay Williams.

Williams, speaking at the first Mahoning Valley Access to Care Network health-care summit, recalled the problems his own parents faced when he was young.

“Looking back, I realize that there were times when my parents, both of whom were working, didn’t have health insurance and went without care because they couldn’t afford another bill,” Williams said.

“As a citizen who has seen this personally, seeing people come together like this, I feel we have an opportunity to solve the problem,” he said.

Williams was one of several speakers at Friday’s summit, attended by some 100 representatives from Valley governments, community organizations and health-care providers.

The consensus was that improving access to health care for uninsured and underinsured residents is crucial, but that it is not a job for just one community or hospital or organization.

The City of Warren is committed to working collaboratively to solve the problem,” said that city’s mayor, Michael O’Brien.

Creation of the access-to-care network, and Friday’s summit, are the result of nine months of information gathering and organizational work by representatives of Humility of Mary Health Partners, Forum Health and Ohio North East Health System, along with assistance from Jacqueline Taylor, a research economist in Youngstown State University’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies. Leading the effort were Michael Robinson, director of primary care and community outreach at HMHP; Michael Cicchillo, vice president of external affairs at Forum, and Elizabeth Haddle, chief operating officer for Ohio North East Health System.

“We need to make sure we don’t put an unjust or unfair face on the uninsured,” Robinson said.

He said that 50 percent of the uninsured in Ohio are between ages 18 and 40. Further, said Cicchillo, 69 percent have high school diplomas and 81 percent are in working families.”

In 2007, the three major area health-care organizations provided a combined $81.2 million in charity care, which they say represents a serious financial burden.

But, said Robert Shroder, president and chief executive officer of HMHP, money is not the main concern: providing the best care possible is.

The emergency room, which many uninsured use in lieu of a family physician or medical home, is the wrong setting for nonemergency care, such as sore throats or headaches, Shroder said.

Emergency room care is episodic and does not provide the type of continuity of care that a medical home does, and it is also the most expensive place to get care, he said.

“All hospitals provide free care, but in reality there is no such thing as free care. We all pay through our insurance,” Shroder said.

The Mahoning Valley is not the first area to look for solutions to access to care.

Jan Ruma, executive director of the Toledo-Lucas County CareNet, said if providing health care for all Americans were simple, “we would have already done it.”

She said it is really up to local communities to take the first step.

Since its inception in January 2003, the Toledo-Lucas County CareNet has served some 14,000 low-income uninsured residents and has about 5,000 active members. Many are people who never thought they would need this type of help, she said.

CareNet is not insurance. It is a network that works to improve access to care by helping them navigate the system, with the goal of improving their lives, Ruma said.

Hospitals did not create the problem of the uninsured, but the problem ends up on their doorstep; and the response in Toledo was the same as it is now in the Mahoning Valley: competing hospitals working together to solve the problem, Ruma said.