Sunday, November 8, 2009

A look at Jacksonville’s health care terrain

Someone who goes into the Southside’s Memorial Hospital to get treatment for a heart attack can expect to be charged $81,301. But if that patient travels instead to Baptist Medical Center Downtown, just five miles down the road, the bill would plummet to $39,032.

Same illness. Same part of town. More than $42,000 difference between the bills.

How can one hospital charge so much more than another? Is it because Memorial’s heart attack patients get far superior care?

It doesn’t appear so. Readmission rates, a crucial quality indicator, are nearly identical at the two hospitals for heart attack patients — 10.7 percent at Baptist and 11.7 at Memorial.

Memorial and its sister hospital, Orange Park Medical Center, tend to charge patients much more than their Northeast Florida competitors, according to a Times-Union analysis of area hospitals’ self-reported charges. And the only discernible difference between the two hospitals and the rest is that they operate to make a profit for shareholders.

About 90 percent of hospitals in the United States are operated as nonprofits, a proportion that mirrors Jacksonville’s health care landscape. Instead of having to share profits with investors, the Jacksonville area’s 11 nonprofit hospitals can plow that money into new medical equipment, additional staff, facility upgrades and other improvements.

As nonprofits, they receive tax incentives, most notably a pass on paying property taxes, which can add millions of dollars a year to a for-profit hospital’s expense ledger. To make good on their nonprofit status, hospitals are supposed to provide benefits to the community, such as writing off care to the poor and uninsured as charity.

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