Debt, budget shortfalls hurting Watonga hospital

Monday, August 5th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WATONGA, Okla. (AP) _ Budget shortfalls and growing debt are forcing hospital trustees in Watonga to consider cutting ambulance services and asking voters for new tax revenue.

``I think the hospital is definitely teetering on the brink,'' said Kyle Goerke, president of the board of the 52-year-old hospital.

Although administrators have cut personnel and redundant systems, the hospital lost $250,000 in the 2001-02 fiscal year, Goerke said.

Trustees are negotiating with Medicare on nearly $1 million in debt, which is accumulating at 13.25 percent interest. Board members have asked that the interest be forgiven or that the rate be reduced.

The hospital pays $17,000 a month on the debt.

``Now we're at the level where we're looking at cutting some services,'' said Goerke.

The hospital is losing about $10,000 a month on its ambulance service, which covers Watonga and a 20-mile radius outside town. It costs the hospital about $130,000 a year to run the service, but Medicare reimburses only half of that, Goerke said.

The hospital stopped providing ambulance services to Geary in January 2001 because it was losing money. Geary then set up a tax district to operate its own service, Goerke said.

Board members have asked the city of Watonga to consider taking over the ambulance service, which employs two people and a few fill-in employees.

``I think it's something we're going to have to address in the next 60 days,'' Goerke said.

Watonga residents will vote on a half-cent sales tax increase Aug. 27. The proposed tax would continue for five years and is expected to earn $10,000 a month for operational expenses and equipment.

That tax will be in addition to a one-cent sales tax the hospital already receives for operations and maintenance. That five-year tax was renewed in 1999, Goerke said.

The hospital, owned by a public trust, usually has five to six patients daily, employs 67 people and operates an emergency room, radiology department and a lab.

Residents benefit medically from having a hospital but the community also benefits economically, hospital administrator David Jordan said.

According to an Oklahoma State University study released in February 2001, the hospital and doctors have a $3.8 million direct impact on the city annually.

All health care operations, including dentists and pharmacies, funnel $8.8 million into the community every year, Jordan said.