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Letter -- St. Joseph's survival is a delegation priority

To the editor: Ever since the administration and board at St. Joseph's Hospital in Dickinson brought the hospital's dire financial condition to our attention last year, finding relief has been one of our top health care priorities. We fully recog...

To the editor:

Ever since the administration and board at St. Joseph's Hospital in Dickinson brought the hospital's dire financial condition to our attention last year, finding relief has been one of our top health care priorities.

We fully recognize the importance of this facility and are absolutely committed to keeping St. Joseph's open as a provider of quality health care to the families of southwestern North Dakota. And we have made significant progress in the effort to increase Medicare reimbursement for St. Joseph's.

However, there is still work to do. In particular, we are still working to help St. Joseph's obtain Critical Access Hospital (CAH) status. This Critical Access status would mean greater Medicare reimbursement. But under current law, St. Joseph's is not eligible for this status because another Critical Access hospital - in Richardton - is located within 35 miles of Dickinson.

To find the best way to overcome this obstacle, we brought the head of Medicare, Kerry Weems, to Dickinson for a meeting last December with hospital and community leaders.

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At that meeting, we agreed with the hospital and Mr. Weems on a number of steps that would lead to a solution. First, we convinced Mr. Weems to re-open a rural hospital demonstration program for St. Joseph's. This means an additional $1.3 million to the hospital over the next two years.

Second, we agreed the best avenue to Critical Access status would be for St. Joseph's and Richardton hospitals to negotiate a mutually acceptable arrangement under which the Richardton hospital would relinquish its own Critical Access status and become a nursing home. This would allow St. Joseph's to become a Critical Access hospital without violating the 35 mile rule.

Mr. Weems suggested that St. Joseph's and Richardton should seek assistance from the governor in obtaining additional nursing home beds to facilitate this conversion. Unfortunately, assistance has not been provided, and an arrangement has not yet been reached between the two hospitals. Nevertheless, we continue to believe this is the most promising approach and are working with both parties to encourage an agreement.

The simple fact is despite our efforts to pass a bill, it is highly unlikely that Congress will be persuaded to pass legislation that would allow both St. Joseph's and the Richardton hospital to be designated as Critical Access hospitals. Legislation to allow that arrangement would generate significant opposition from other members of Congress because it would set a national precedent with far-reaching consequences.

There is no question that maintaining a viable hospital in Dickinson is critically important - not just for the health of people in southwest North Dakota, but as an employer and anchor for economic development. That is why we all need to work together for a result that allows St. Joseph's to get back on its feet.

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D.

Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D.

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