City’s Funding for U of L Hospital Questioned, Facing Cuts

by Gabe Bullard on December 13, 2011

After a brief delay, the Louisville Metro Council is expected to continue its payments to University of Louisville Hospital for indigent care. But concerns over the city budget and the hospital’s pending merger have made that money an easy target.

The city gives about $9.6 million to the hospital every year to care for the city’s poor, though some of that money is returned.

Four council members blocked one payment to the hospital this week because they wanted to see more accounting of how the money is spent. They were also protesting potential changes in care, visitation rights and employee benefits that could happen if the hospital merges with Jewish Hospital and St. Mary’s Health System and a division of Catholic Health Initiatives.

The merger contract will outline the extent to which U of L Hospital and Jewish Hospital will follow religious ethics. The partners have already announced a few changes. Among them:

  • Tubal ligations will move to Baptist Hospital East
  • Contraception will not be distributed within the hospital, though doctors may still prescribe it
  • Employee benefits to spouses and same-sex partners will be replaced with a “plus one” system under which employees could add spouses, partners, relatives or friends to their insurance plans. Hospital executives have not yet determined whether employees will have to pay for the plus one benefits.

“We’re constantly getting opinions from the county attorney: ‘Well you can’t do that because of church/state separation.’ We can’t even give funding to a number of organizations that do very good work because of that,” says Councilwoman Tina Ward-Pugh, who led the efforts to table the payment to the hospital. “Why, then, are we giving $9.6 million a year to a public university when they can’t prove that they’re serving indigents and they also, all of a sudden, are claiming they’re not even a public hospital?”

Ward-Pugh is confident her group of four Democrats will not be able to keep the payment on the table, and the council will likely vote Thursday to continue funding indigent care.

Ward-Pugh doubts care will stop over a two-day delay, and she says there’s little the council can do to block the merger, which is still awaiting approval from Governor Steve Beshear. But if care, benefits or visitation privileges are to change, and if executives insist the hospital is private, Ward-Pugh says perhaps the facility shouldn’t receive city money.

“If there is a private group out there that can guarantee 100 percent the services, across the board, no discrimination, then maybe we should consider that,” she says.

The mayor’s office wants the payments to continue. Spokesman Chris Poynter says the indigent care funding should not be lumped together with the merger at this time. But the city is facing a tight budget for the next fiscal year, and, merger or not, the payments may have to stop.

“We’re going to be facing a significant shortfall next fiscal year and we know that. We’re looking at every expense and determining what are the core services of government and what can we afford to fund anymore,” says Poynter.  “Everything’s on the table.”

Poynter says the administration has not yet discussed whether the city should help fund the hospital if the merger goes through.

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