Prince William County supervisors voted yesterday to give $275,000 to local hospitals and medical providers to help them deal with the exploding number of uninsured residents they are treating.
In Prince William, the two private hospitals, Potomac Hospital in Woodbridge and Prince William Hospital in Manassas, together provided more than $40 million in uncompensated care in 2003, up from $30 million in 2002.
Each hospital will get $100,000 in public funds to help defray costs. An additional $25,000 will go to each of three smaller outreach health programs.
As federal and state officials debate the growing crisis over the treatment of legions of uninsured patients, it often falls on local officials to do something about it. Other counties in the region have provided help for indigent care, including an ambitious program in Montgomery County, which helps fund a group of clinics for uninsured patients.
Prince William has been growing more affluent in the past decade and now boasts $1 million homes. Yet the number of the indigent and uninsured is also growing, county health officials said.
The county board's decision to give tax dollars to Prince William's two private nonprofit hospitals was not made lightly. Some lawmakers said they fear that they will be forced to pick up more of the check for what they consider a national problem.
"I have a real philosophical issue with this," said Supervisor John T. Stirrup Jr. (R-Gainesville), the only one on the eight-member board to vote against the funding. "We can be opening up a real Pandora's box here."
Others on the board said that when hospitals suffer and residents can't get quality health care and bills go up for everybody, it turns the issue into a local one.
Supporters said the growing burden of treating uninsured patients for the county's two hospitals is also being felt in the county's budget.
"Remember, the county government is the biggest purchaser of health care, with more than 10,000 employees," said Chairman Sean T. Connaughton (R). He said the county is self-insured and has experienced a 30 percent annual increase in costs. Some of what insured patients pay for medical care indirectly helps cover the bills of uninsured patients, he said.
Connaughton said the funding is more of a discretionary grant than a recurring budget item. The county gave the hospitals money for the first time last year.
And he said the county is also aggressively trying to qualify for more federal health funding, which might provide money for one or more clinics.
Montgomery and Fairfax counties have extensive publicly supported programs to help the poor and uninsured.
Montgomery has a network of 10 independent, nonprofit health clinics that county leaders hope will expand and become a de facto system of universal health care. An initiative that started five years ago with a $100,000 county grant to promote primary health care for uninsured adults has grown into a $2.1 million annual investment. The clinics provide primary care to more than 11,400 adults a year.
Fairfax's program provides primary care to more than 25,000 residents a year through partnerships and several clinics run by the county's health department, said Merni Fitzgerald, a county spokeswoman. In addition, the county has a long-standing deal with the Inova hospital chain to provide inpatient care for the county's indigent.