KING 5 Ad Watch: Did Patty Murray save a Wenatchee hospital?



Posted on September 27, 2010 at 5:25 PM

Commercial: "We were in real jeopardy of losing this hospital."
"But Senator Murray came through for us."

It's a feel-good ad from Democrat Patty Murray, trying to make the case that her seniority is helping Washington state.

Commercial: "She cut through the federal red tape, and got the support to pass a law that saved the hospital."

Did Patty Murray save this hospital?  We went to Wenatchee, Washington to talk with the doctor featured in the commercial and found there's much more to this story.

David Weber is CEO of Wenatchee Valley Medical Center.  Weber says a group of doctors started this hospital just eight years ago, because Medicare rules made it more profitable than just running a clinic.

"The important thing is physicians who are associated with a hospital are reimbursed at a higher rate of reimbursement by Medicare and Medicaid," Weber said.

Weber said on average, Medicare pays about 12% more, just because a doctor is affiliated with a hospital.  It was a good arrangement for the Wenatchee doctors until two years ago, when Congress threatened to pull the plug.

Wenatchee Valley Medical Center is unusual--it's the only hospital in Washington State that's completely owned by doctors.  But nationwide, it's a fast-growing trend; more than 70 doctor-owned hospitals have sprung up in Texas alone.  And many in Congress see this as a bad trend that needs to be stopped.

The argument against these hospitals is that doctors have incentive to refer patients to their own hospital.  The more lucrative procedures they order, the more profits they make, jacking up costs to Medicare.  Congress was considering a law to stop sending Medicare patients to doctor-owned hospitals.

"We're caught up in the same broad brush of legislation which we felt was very inappropriate," Weber said.

Weber said Murray had the clout to change the bill.  As part of the deal, existing doctor-owned hospitals like Wenatchee Valley Medical Center cannot expand, but they're grandfathered in and can continue getting paid for Medicare patients. 

Not everyone applauded Murray's changes.  Democratic Congressman Pete Stark told the New York Times, "Once you start making exceptions, everyone lines up and says me too...and that's a political nightmare."

Is it fair that Senator Murray carved out an exception that helped Wenatchee Valley Medical Center?  "That's a very good question," Weber said.  "Of course, everybody sees legislation from their own particular, through their own eyeglasses.  I believe in this situation that it was fair and correct."

Weber tells us, the commercial is not an endorsement of Murray.  "This is a thank you to Patty Murray for what she was able to do for us.  We do not endorse other aspects of Patty Murray's agenda, nor the Democratic agenda," Weber said.

Bottom line:  The commercial might leave you with the impression that Sen. Murray saved Wenatchee's only hospital.  In reality, Wenatchee Valley Medical Center only has 20 beds.  Down the street, is Central Washington Hospital that's ten times bigger and was never in danger of closing.  Weber says what Sen. Murray saved was really the ability of his doctors to bill at higher Medicare rates and he says, keeping his doctors financially viable is what benefits Wenatchee.