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County health board

Marianne Kobak McKown, Elko Daily Free Press file County Commissioner Delmo Andreozzi, left, listens as County Health Officer Dr. Joy DeGuzman speaks during an Elko County Board of Health meeting in October.

ELKO – After receiving numerous complaints from residents, the Elko County Health Board this week sent a five-page letter to LifePoint Health CEO William Carpenter with concerns about Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital’s prices and billing practices.

LifePoint is the corporation that owns the hospital.

The County Health Board consists of all five commissioners, plus Dr. Joy DeGuzman and Elko County Sheriff Jim Pitts. The board voted unanimously to send the letter Tuesday.

“They’re sending the letter because individual members of the board have received complaints and concerns from residents,” said Elko County Manager Rob Stokes.

The letter begins, “The Elko County Health Board would like to officially put you on notice that the local hospital is having an extremely negative impact on our local economy and the safety, health and welfare of our citizens.”

The health board tells Carpenter that the County owned and operated the hospital for almost 100 years before electing to sell to Province Health Care, which was later acquired by LifePoint.

During the last several year some of the area’s largest employers, including mining companies, the County and Elko County School District, “have taken drastic steps to reduce their healthcare overhead,” the board states. Many of these employers encourage their employees to seek healthcare out of town to save money.

“The two major mining companies have elected to utilize Surgery Plus to negotiate charges and refer patients to out of town providers, paying the employee gas, lodging and meal expenses—at a significant savings to the charges at NNRH,” the letter states “Other large employers also are exploring the idea of sending their employees out of town.”

The health board says these actions are directly related to high charges to patients and insurance companies at Elko’s hospital.

“This anti-competitive pricing is eroding our healthcare infrastructure,” the letter states. “Local medical providers are losing business. They are either leaving Elko or minimizing their staffing levels to stay in business. Other businesses are reportedly choosing not to relocate here.”

The health board states these out-of-town medical trips put residents’ health at risk. It also told Carpenter that the community has a “widespread lack of confidence that the corporation cares about our community.”

The board gave “examples of abuse” by the hospital to patients. When services were compared to hospitals in Twin Falls, Reno, Salt Lake City or Fallon the prices were higher in Elko.

One of the health board members was involved in a serious accident. He received six hours of medical care in NNRH but when he suffered a relapse he was in Fallon and stayed the night at Banner Churchill Community Hospital. The Fallon hospital charged him $7,571. NNRH CEO Rick Palagi reviewed the board member’s accounts and said the same services would cost $11,750 in Elko, which is about a 35 percent difference in cost.

Another complaint concerned the hospital’s billing practices of patients being “hounded” to pledge to pay a bill within 72 hours of treatment to receive a “prompt pay discount.” The patient said she took time to read the document and it stated she had seven days to pay the bill — not 72 hours.

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The health board brought up the company’s mission of “making communities healthier” and its vision, “We want to create places where: People choose to come for healthcare, physicians want to practice, and employees want to work.” The letter also states LifePoint’s five core guiding principles are “Delivering high quality patient care, supporting physicians, creating excellent workplaces for our employees, taking a leadership role in our communities and ensuring fiscal responsibility.”

The letter states, “However it is not evident to the community that these words match what is actually taking place.”

The health board told Carpenter it wants the hospital to remain profitable, but when costs become “exorbitant” people are willing to travel to receive those same services at a lower price.

“The Elko County Health Board’s grievance is not with the local administration,” the letter states “We are convinced local CEO Rick Palagi is a good and sincere man, but we suspect his hands are being tied by the Tennessee headquarters. We are directing this letter to your attention because we believe the only way to affect positive resolution to these high charges is to work with the corporate level.”

The board invited Carpenter to come to Elko to listen to the community’s complaints and concerns firsthand.

NNRH Director of Marketing and Community Relations Steve Burrows said the hospital couldn’t comment on the letter.

LifePoint Director of Communications Emily Serck said the company had not received the letter yet.

“It would be premature for us to respond to something we haven’t yet seen in its entirety,” she said Friday.

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