When I write a comment, it is often with the intention of giving people a new perspective on an issue in the news.
For instance, several people have asked me what I feel about the latest round of bad blood between Gundersen Clinic and Winneshiek Medical Center. The hospital doesn't want to allow "preferred provider" status to the Gundersen Lutheran Health Plan, so Gundersen might stop using Winneshiek Medical Center for MRIs.
But the question this latest dispute raises in my mind isn't which side is less to blame, it's "Why are taxpayers involved in this situation?"
As you might know, Winneshiek County taxpayers give Winneshiek Medical Center $400,000 in property tax receipts each year. Winneshiek County's involvement with the hospital goes back to 1969, when the Smith Memorial Hospital Board of Trustees dissolved and donated its building, equipment and funds to Winneshiek County. The county in 1971 opened a new facility at the hospital's current location at 901 Montgomery Street in Decorah, turning the former hospital building into county offices.
At that time, Winneshiek County government wanted to make sure the new hospital survived financially. But, as even the hospital's website notes, there have been "dramatic changes in health care since 1971."
The most dramatic change is that Winneshiek Medical Center is now a $36 million a year business. Every business has to watch its bottom line and the hospital did recently have some financial struggles, but wouldn't you agree that it seems unlikely the hospital will collapse and go away? The hospital doesn't need Winneshiek County's $400,000 a year subsidy in order to survive.
On the other hand, Winneshiek County desperately needs $400,000 for its own purposes. That money could be put to use repairing roads and bridges in the county, for example. Or it could help soften budget cuts in many departments. Or it could be returned to taxpayers, who need a financial break. In a time of tight budgets, every single dollar spent needs to be studied. And when it's $400,000, the need for studying the reason for spending that money is even greater.
The question is not whether Gundersen Clinic or Mayo Clinic is getting preferential treatment from the hospital—it's whether, 40 years after the hospital opened and 40 years of dramatic changes in the health care industry later, there's any point in Winneshiek County taxpayers subsidizing the operation of an organization that brings in $36 million a year in revenue. The time has come to cut the county's umbilical cord to Winneshiek Medical Center and use $400,000 a year in tax funds for more appropriate purposes.
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