Uninsured Arkansans Cost Hospitals

February 2, 2004 -- Posted at 3:42 p.m. CST

PARAGOULD -- The number of Arkansans without health insurance is growing...and hospitals are often left with the bills. But who picks up the tab when patients aren't able to pay and need medical treatment?

Uncompensated care--or folks with out health insurance--is increasing in Arkansas. That means hospitals like Arkansas Methodist Medical Center in Paragould are left crunching the numbers.

Harry Hutchinson is the Vice President of Finance for the hospital and said every year the bad debt increases.

"To give you an idea of what we're looking at...last fiscal year we had right at 5 million dollars in uncompensated care and this year is looks like it will be well over 6 million dollars," said Hutchinson.

According to the Arkansas Hospital Association, uncollected debt at Arkansas Community Hospitals has more than tripled between 1990 and 2001. But it's not just a problem in Arkansas alone...

"It's unbelievable. Those uninsured in the United States have increased from 41.2 million to 43.6 million from 2001 to 2002," said Hutchinson.

Under law, certain patients can not be denied medical care, but the number of Arkansans with out health insurance is growing, and often, hospitals like these are left holding the tab.

Hospital officials say just under half of all people who come into the emergency room in Paragould do not have health insurance...and those bills can add up fast.

Pat Ray, RN, is the Emergency Room Unit Coordinator for the Arkansas Methodist Medical Center. She said that folks will come to their ER when they can't afford to go elsewhere.

"For most people we're the only medical care they will receive. A lot of people don't have insurance...they can't afford a doctor's office visit, therefore they come to an emergency room and they know that we can at least see them and have a screening done," said Ray.

But the folks at Arkansas Methodist Medical Center won't turn anyone away, even if they're unable to pay.

"We do try to help people if they don't have insurance. We do have people here who try to guide them toward what they can do, but it is a problem, and it's a problem everywhere," said Ray.

Officials at the Arkansas Methodist Medical Center say their uncompensated care runs at just under 14% of their net revenue. That debt creates a heavy burden for a hospital with only 129 beds.