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Elko-area residents are concerned about affordable health care — not the insurance subsidy program initiated by President Obama, but the relatively high cost of treatment at the local hospital.

The Elko County Board of Health took the unprecedented step last week of calling out the CEO of the nation’s fifth-largest hospital system, claiming LifePoint Health “is having an extremely negative impact on our local economy and the safety, health and welfare of our citizens.”

The letter also cites “significant animosity toward the hospital” as the reason many residents travel out of town for care.

These are serious charges, and we hope the county receives a response from the company that puts them in a broader perspective.

County Commissioner Delmo Andreozzi, who also serves on both the county health board and the hospital’s governing board, sees this issue as a critical one that must be addressed.

“I just feel like the corporation has a social responsibility to be competitive in this market,” so people have the choice to stay home, he told the Free Press.

Because of Elko’s isolated location, people here are used to paying more for many things — such as air service — and the health board members agree that they want to see the hospital make a profit. At issue is the degree which medical charges and profits exceed those in similar communities. The health board’s letter lists specific instances in which Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital is charging 50 percent or more than other hospitals in the region for the same service, and is making higher profits than any other hospital in Nevada.

Some of the consequences of high costs listed in the letter also could be seen as reasons for charging more, potentially setting up a “death spiral.” For example, if a company’s prices are too high, more people are willing to travel out of town for the same goods or services. The letter explains how large employers have set up their own clinics and are sending their workers to competing hospitals to save money.

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Having fewer “customers” drives up costs. Our community would be much better off if large employers – including the county government itself — worked with the hospital to find solutions instead of parting ways.

One of the reasons we are not seeing this kind of cooperation may be the lack of capacity to serve the region’s residents. We have often heard how difficult it is for the hospital to recruit doctors, and we have no reason to doubt it. Most local business operators can identify with the difficulty and the high costs of recruiting employees. Elko has many positive aspects but its size and distance from major cities will always limit its attraction.

We also need to ask county officials if they think we are worse off than when they ran the hospital. When commissioners decided to sell the inadequate and outdated Elko General Hospital 20 years ago, they said it was because they did not believe local voters would ever approve financing to build a desperately needed new hospital. They chose to sell it to Province Healthcare for $22 million, which then built a $40 million facility that was later acquired by LifePoint.

The people who live here and the corporations that drive our local economy have both invested a great deal in Elko. No one wants to see the type of leakage that happens when residents spend large portions of their income in out-of-state markets.

Getting back on course will take a tremendous effort, one that we hope both hospital officials and major employers will see as worthwhile.

Members of the Elko Daily Free Press editorial board are Travis Quast, Jeffry Mullins and Marianne Kobak McKown.

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