Group makes recommendations to keep Miss. trauma system afloat

Published 8:45 pm Friday, February 1, 2008

With rising uncompensated care costs and a deteriorating network of hospitals, Mississippi’s trauma care system is near collapse, says State Health Officer Dr. Ed Thompson.

Thompson presented lawmakers a report Thursday from the Mississippi Trauma Care Task Force, which recommended ways to increase state spending and make overall improvements to a system with problems that mirror those of trauma networks across the nation.

The state currently spends $8 million a year to reimburse hospitals for treating uninsured patients who suffer trauma such as gunshot wounds or injuries from car accidents. At least $40 million a year is needed to maintain the trauma system, the report said.

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Many hospitals have opted not to participate in the system because of the uncompensated care costs and the difficulty recruiting and retaining specialized physicians, the report said.

Increasing fees on driver’s licenses, gun permits, vehicle inspection stickers and license plates are among the suggestions by the task force to generate money for the trauma system. Another suggestion was to assess a fee on hospitals that are capable of participating in the system, but choose not to join.

“If we don’t do something, it’s subject to collapse. In fact, it is collapsing,” Thompson said.

Lawmakers are facing stagnant state revenue growth and an expanding list of budget demands, but House Public Health Chairman Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, said trauma care will be a priority.

“We’ll make due with whatever we’ve got. It’s worth fighting for,” Holland said.

Thompson said a legislative proposal based on the report will be introduced this session.

The University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson is the only Level 1 — top level — trauma care facility in the state. A Level 1 facility has research and academic medical centers with specialists present 24 hours a day.

Another Level 1 facility in the state’s network is the Regional Medical Center at Memphis in Tennessee, which accepts patients from north Mississippi. The Med, as it is known, could pull out of the network at any time, said Chuck Stokes, president of the Tupelo-based North Mississippi Medical Center.

If that happens, that would put a strain on UMC and the other two full-time Level 2 trauma centers in the state and would likely lead to more physicians leaving the system, Stokes said.

Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg is a full-time Level 2 center.

The hospital’s trauma patient load grew over 200 percent over six years, said Forrest General president Bill Oliver. From 917 in 2000 to 2,581 in 2006. He believes some of the growth is the result of the closure of a trauma center in Louisiana, where patients in south Mississippi ordinarily would have been taken.

“Right now our commitment is there,” Oliver said. “However, I can tell you that a lot of our physicians or medical staff are really depending on action by the Legislature. Without that they probably give up some of the hope that they have.”

A number of trauma centers around the country are on the verge of closing, said Connie Potter, executive director of the National Foundation for Trauma Care. She said Grady Memorial in Atlanta is losing about $8 million a month. The University Medical Center in Tucson, Ariz., also is in serious trouble, she said. Charity Hospital in Louisiana closed after Hurricane Katrina.

“We have others that have reduced their level from Level 2 to a Level 3 where all they have is a surgeon. There’s a number of downgrades. That’s another way that hospitals respond to these economic pressures without closing entirely,” Potter said.