By Michael Skehan
Special to the Mercury News
As executive director of Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, I see firsthand the care provided by the safety net, the system of hospitals, clinics and long-term care facilities that are committed to caring for patients regardless of their health condition or their ability to pay.
But it's not just the uninsured who benefit from VMC's presence in our community. VMC houses our area's only Level 1 trauma center, its only burn unit and an outstanding neonatal department. Our mental health services are excellent, as are our preventive health programs that keep members of our community healthier for longer and in their own homes.
These are among the key reasons why Santa Clara County voters overwhelmingly supported the passage of Measure A, the seismic safety bond on the November 2008 ballot.
Safety net hospitals like VMC are adept at working within tight budgets, but we can only do so much. In the last seven years, VMC has saved taxpayers more than $159 million through budget reductions and restructuring. Thanks to the "Transformation 2010" Initiative, we are now in the process of making aggressive new changes that will improve the quality of care while further reducing the use of tax dollars.
VMC is not alone in this difficult budget environment. Forty-three states are facing budgetary shortfalls for fiscal year 2009 because of declines in revenue and increased enrollment in state programs, like Medicaid (Medi-Cal in California). As Gov. Schwarzenegger and other state leaders across the nation are seeking ways to close budget deficits by proposing massive cuts in Medicaid, doing so would be devastating to the health of local communities, and the long-term viability of many safety net hospitals.
Instead, Congress and the Obama administration should immediately provide operating and capital relief to safety net hospital systems to help ensure that the newly uninsured can access needed health care services, and that safety net hospitals remain stable and vital through this economic crisis. If we can afford to bail out banks, surely we can afford to assist our nation's safety net hospitals.
Hospitals are facing huge cuts from state and local governments grappling with the recession and facing very tough choices about possible layoffs of employees and service closures to people in need. Now is not the time to tie the hands of the hospitals that care for the most vulnerable among us. Public hospitals have always been there during hard times, but they need help from the federal government to keep them viable during this economic crisis.