D200124 health care

Dr. Scott Matthews, left, Dr. Jim Boyle and Decatur Morgan Hospital President Nat Richardson join a panel discussing the state of health care Thursday. [DAN BUSEY/DECATUR DAILY]

The number of patients using Decatur Morgan Hospital has increased since Huntsville Hospital System completed a $50 million investment, but health care in the Decatur area continues to face challenges as hospitals do nationally, hospital President Nat Richardson said.

“The quality of care people get here is as good as care they get anywhere, but nationwide and in Decatur there is a shortage of family practice physicians,” he said Thursday during his annual health care address, which is organized and sponsored by the Decatur-Morgan County Chamber of Commerce.

Richardson, who has been at the hospital since 2012, held a round-table discussion with internal medicine specialist Dr. Scott Matthews and pulmonologist Dr. Jim Boyle. The doctors are Decatur natives and they echoed his sentiment about the quality of health care patients receive at the hospital.

For about one hour, the trio talked to an audience of elected officials and community leaders about a number of health care issues, including the need for Medicaid expansion, the shortage of family practice physicians, the economic impact of hospitals and the future of Decatur’s public hospital, which open in 1915.

Interviewed before the panel discussion, Richardson said the hospital has benefited from completion of a five-year, $50 million strategic plan that increased the number of private beds to 100 in a hospital that is licensed for 273 beds.

The plan also included a $6 million renovation of the emergency department, the addition of 3D mammography, dedicating two floors for obstetrics and gynecological services and a third floor where patients come for appointments with a team of OB-GYN physicians that work for the hospital.

“All of our services for women are in one place, and patients don’t have to go between here and the Parkway Campus on the Beltline,” Richardson said. “I don’t have specific numbers, but use of our hospital, especially in the emergency department, is up about 3%.”

Lack of family practice doctors and uncompensated care, however, continue to be issues for the hospital, he said.

Richardson said Decatur “could easily use” an additional 10 family practice physicians.

Hilary Blakely, director of business development and physician recruitment for Decatur Morgan Hospital, said Decatur is recruiting the same physicians as every other hospital in the nation.

“We try to find the right person to be in Decatur,” she said, adding that some physicians want to be in a larger city. “We have quality physicians and they help us with recruiting, but the shortage is a national problem.”

The Association of American Medical Colleges estimates that by 2032 the number of physicians in the U.S. could be 122,000 short of what is needed.

As for uncompensated care, Richardson said the hospital loses about $4 million per month because of patients who either can’t or won’t pay. He said Medicaid expansion would eliminate some of the bad debt issues because more people coming to the hospital would have insurance.

Alabama is one of 14 states that have refused Medicaid expansion, which is a central part of the Affordable Care Act intended to help low-income working families. State officials have said they don’t have the required 10% match, estimated at close to $200 million, for Medicaid expansion.

Richardson said more than poor people would benefit from Medicaid expansion.

“Medicaid covers mostly women, children and the disabled,” he said. “It’s not just for the poor.”

Boyle said he doesn’t question people about whether they have insurance or the ability to pay when they come to him at the hospital for service. But the reality that some will not pay “comes around at the end of the day” when he sends a bill to the hospital.

“Medicaid expansion won’t solve the health care crisis, but it will help us manage it better,” Boyle said.

Matthews said he agrees with Richardson and Boyle, but views the situation from a different perspective. He said people will be hard-pressed to find any other business willing to give $4 million a month to the community.

“This is money people can use to buy groceries and other things that helps the business community in Decatur,” Matthews said about the charitable care Decatur Morgan Hospital provides.

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— deangelo@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2469. Twitter @DD_Deangelo.

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