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Patients are trying to stretch the life of their contact lenses even longer than usua
Unhealthy economy affecting health care
By Jason Kane - January 16, 2009
The Winchester, VA Star
Aches and pains have become commonplace for Peter Stetler.
He can’t breathe well and spends a lot of time thinking about the days of regular physical checkups.
In this economy, that’s not an option.
“I’ve had to cut back,” said the 65-year-old city resident. “The idea of saying, ‘I don’t feel good, I’m going to the doctor, is long gone.’”
Stetler recently needed a $900 computerized-imagery scan to investigate upper-respiratory troubles. He still doesn’t know how he’s going to pay for it.
“If you don’t have the resources to take care of yourself, you just don’t do it,” he said. “It’s cheaper for you to die.”
Stetler is far from alone.
So far, in fact, that the health-care industry — a field once considered “recession-proof” — is now feeling the economic pinch.
Even Winchester-based Valley Health has begun tightening its belt.
“Overall what we have seen is a flattening of our growth,” said Michael Halseth, president and chief executive officer of the nonprofit organization that operates Winchester Medical Center and four other area hospitals. “We think the economy has a lot to do with that.”
Valley Health typically sees a growth rate of 4 to 5 percent per year for outpatient services and 1 to 2 percent for inpatient services.
Halseth blames the stumble on people putting off treatment for illnesses that are not life-threatening.
Plastic surgery has taken a dive, he said, as well as routine screenings, elective surgeries, and more serious needs, such as visits for flu cases.
“Things that aren’t gotta-haves are being postponed,” said Craig Lewis, Valley Health’s chief financial officer. “We haven’t seen a huge drop-off in the service revenues, but we have seen some of the electives kind of fall by the wayside.”
Compounding Valley Health’s money woes is the fact that many area employers have cut back on employee benefits, forcing ailing individuals to pay more out of pocket or rely on the health system’s charity care.
Bad debt — or debt that is unlikely to be paid to Valley Health — has been increasing, too, Lewis said.
The drop in Valley Health’s revenue hasn’t hurt a substantial portion of its base. “It’s just kind of on the periphery,” Halseth said.
Still, corrective measures are being taken.
The organization has reduced or eliminated a variety of employee appreciation programs, has slightly reduced its merit raise program, and has charged a position control committee with evaluating requests for new and replacement jobs.
The economic crisis also means trouble for smaller medical practices throughout the area.
Many residents are coping a bit longer with everything from aching backs to blurry vision, doctors say.
Cavity-filled mouths will likely be more common in coming months, too, said Dr. Gerald Brown, a dentist with a practice on Amherst Street.
“Dentistry is often viewed as an elective health field,” he said. “If people are in pain or break something, that makes them have to come in, but a lot of other times they’re able to postpone.”
Especially when they face routine cleaning or expensive procedures such as crowns or fillings.
Brown hasn’t seen a dramatic drop in patients, which means he doesn’t need to cut down hours or staffing. “But I’m knocking on wood as we speak.”
At the nearby Shenandoah Valley Orthodontic Specialists, Dr. Damon DeArment said that for the first time in years his practice has fallen — rather than grown — by 5 percent.
Three-fourths of the office’s patients are children — many who need braces in a timely manner, he said. Delaying the procedure could spell trouble for young mouths for years to come.
“Parents are putting it off, but they realize they can’t put it off forever,” he said. “They want to do what’s right for their child, but they’re having a hard time right now.”
The same goes for aching backs.
Chiropractor Dr. Greg Loy sees patients for back and neck troubles in his office on Plaza Drive.
Many of them are waiting until they can barely stand the pain before they seek treatment, he said.
“I’ve seen a lot more cases where it’s almost out of our jurisdiction,” Loy said. “If it gets too involved, we have to refer them to another office.”
He plans to help his patients make it through the economic meltdown by offering those needing assistance a flexible payment schedule — even if they can only pay a dollar or two per month.
“There is no point in delaying,” Loy said. “You should try to catch problems before they become too problematic.”
On Valley Avenue, chiropractor Dr. Nichole Lykens saw a significant drop in her patients during the fall.
“When people decided where to put their money, they put us on the back burner,” she said.
When those patients started hurting again and began missing work, they hobbled back into Lykens’ practice.
“We were holding our breath, wondering what the new year was going to bring,” she said. “Now more people are realizing the benefits of our service and we’re seeing them again.”
Dr. Cheryl Robson’s Winchester optometry office has remained solidly booked, “but not as far ahead as we used to be.”
For now, insurance is keeping her practice afloat, she said.
“Some people aren’t sure they’re still going to have their job soon, so they want to use their benefits before they lose them,” Robson said.
Still, she has noticed that her patients are trying to stretch the life of their contact lenses even longer than usual. They sometimes make two-week lenses last as long as two months, Robson said, which could lead to eye irritation or even corneal ulcers.
Such cost-saving measures aren’t likely to end, Stetler said.
“This is a nightmare that people are forced to accept as a daily reality,” he said. “It’s a bad dream.”
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