By Dr. Kevin Caldwell

The high prices at Sutter Coast Hospital are hurting our community. The latest chapter began in 2015, when the Sutter Coast Hospital Board of Directors and hospital CEO Mitch Hanna gave a corporation called EmCare/Envision the exclusive right to supply emergency room doctors to Sutter Coast. Several doctors voiced concern about Sutter’s switch to EmCare but like every other hospital board decision at Sutter Coast, the decision to switch to EmCare was made behind closed doors.

After Sutter invited EmCare into our community, my patients reported two concerns. First, EmCare was charging patients $2,000 for visits described as less than 10 minutes. Second, EmCare was billing out of network for local insurance plans. In other words, the EmCare bills were not only sky high, they were also being applied to the patients’ separate, out of network deductibles. Our most vulnerable patients, those with emergency medical needs, were being taken advantage of.

In response to Sutter’s and EmCare’s business practices, your elected leaders acted. An official committee of representatives from the Del Norte Healthcare District, City Council of Crescent City, and Del Norte County Board of Supervisors drafted a joint resolution. The resolution asks Sutter Coast Hospital to produce its financial books and meeting records, hold regular public meetings, publicly post its prices for common procedures and terminate all contracts with out of network’ providers, including EmCare. Last April, the joint resolution was passed by a unanimous vote of city and county elected leaders.

Last month, the New York Times published a nationwide investigative report on EmCare/Envision, including the findings of a Yale University study showing EmCare was the source of many surprise medical bills, whereby patients were charged high prices and out of network doctor fees, even though hospitals were in network for their insurance plans. Sutter Coast Hospital was featured in the New York Times article, as was reported by Jessica Cejnar of the Del Norte Triplicate.

Sutter Coast has become a poster child for inflated, out of network billing.

The New York Times report meant Sutter could no longer ignore our community’s concerns with EmCare. Sutter suddenly shifted its position. During a recent Del Norte Healthcare District meeting, Sutter Coast Administrator Carlos Priestly announced hospital CEO Mitch Hanna had given EmCare a message: demonstrate they are negotiating contracts with local insurance carriers by Jan. 1.

Sutter’s EmCare announcement is a step in the right direction but it is not enough. I find it unacceptable that Sutter is giving EmCare more time when our patients are being hurt today.

Last March, the Del Norte Healthcare District made an official request for Sutter to end its EmCare contract. The joint resolution asking the same was passed last April. Why is Sutter giving EmCare so much time? Remember, the Sutter Coast Hospital Board of Directors (the majority of whom live in Del Norte County) controls the ER contract, not EmCare.

American healthcare is a $3 trillion yearly industry, full of profiteers anxious for a place at the trough. Compelling a multibillion dollar corporation like Sutter Health to change course is no easy task. But our community has done just that. We stopped Sutter’s effort to move hospital ownership out of Del Norte County. Our effort to stop Sutter from downsizing the hospital and tripling charges on Medicare patients was another big victory for the community.

Today, we are focused on Sutter’s high fees, out of network ER doctors, closed board meetings, secret financial records and tax exempt status.

You can help our effort by posting articles like this one on social media, talking with friends and family and asking your elected leaders to end healthcare profiteering.

If you have a question about your hospital bill or a bill from Battery Point Medical Services — EmCare’s billing agency — ask for an itemized list of charges. If you have concerns with the charges, get help from someone who knows medical billing.

The Del Norte Healthcare District is here to help. We typically meet at 6:30 p.m. on the fourth Tuesday of each month at the Del Norte Community Health Center, 550 E. Washington Blvd. Learn more at our web site at delnortehealthcare.org or call us at 707-464-9494.

Dr. Kevin Caldwell is a member of the Del Norte Healthcare District board.

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