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The Pulse of Care Reform

By Ben Dunsmoor

It has been more than two weeks since President Barack Obama signed historic health care legislation into law. Hospitals across the country are now examining the new law to see what the impact will be.

In Sioux Falls, the health care industry is the heart beat of the community. Avera and Sanford employ more workers than any other company. Twelve thousand people work at the two hospitals combined.

"We're analyzing it carefully to see how it impacts our hospitals, how it impacts physicians, how it impacts our health plans," Deb Fischer-Clemens of Avera Health said.

Since President Obama signed his name to health care reform, both of the systems have been scouring the pages of the bill, and both Avera and Sanford say they support most aspects of the new law.

"Over time, as the bill got changed and adjusted, there were a number of things in this bill that we felt were good for our patients as far as our ability to do our work. So we did support the effort," Cindy Morrison of Sanford Health said.

"The most important thing, I think, about this legislation is that it expands coverage to an additional 32 million people," Fischer-Clemens said.

Fischer-Clemens, the Vice President of Public Policy for Avera Health, says 45,000 more South Dakotans will have insurance because of the new law. Critics say insuring more Americans will cost more. Fischer-Clemens says costs would have gone up anyway.

"Without insurance, you have people that are seeking care and getting care and they are unable to pay for that," Fischer-Clemens said.

That's called charity care and Avera saw those costs increase by 50 percent last year. And while Fischer-Clemens says costs may still rise because of health care reform, they won't skyrocket like they would have if the charity care trend continued.

"That's a lot of money for hospitals and physicians to be able to use to improve services and create new programs, etcetera," Fischer-Clemens said.

When talking about the potential for rising costs from the new law, Sanford Vice President of Public Policy Cindy Morrison points to Massachusetts. That state already has a mandate that all of its citizens have health insurance.

"Yes, premiums did go up in Massachusetts. They went up and then they stabilized, and so the question is would they have gone up anyway? I think this is the debate we've been watching unfold in our country. I don't think we know for sure yet. There's a lot of speculation on both sides of that," Morrison said.

As far as other impacts of the bill, Morrison says it's still too early too tell.

"As this gets implemented and rules and regulations get put in place as it relates to the laws that were just passed, you'll have a better idea of what some of those impacts will be," Morrison said.

Both hospitals know even though the bill has passed, it's not the end of the debate.

"You're probably going to see subsequent legislation over the next decade. It would be pretty strange to not see more health care items end up in legislation," Morrison said.

"This is not a done deal. It is really the beginning of a very long journey," Fischer-Clemens said.

Both hospitals also say the bill will help South Dakota because it's one of five states that is considered a 'frontier state.' That means more federal money will be coming to South Dakota to support rural health care.

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