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Benefits of hospital expansion project far outweigh risks

Posted: Sunday, September 28, 2003

On Oct. 7, voters living within the Central Kenai Peninsula Hospital Service Area will have the opportunity to vote on the expansion and renovation of Central Peninsula General Hospital.

They should say "yes" to Proposition No. 2, which authorizes general obligation bond proceeds of $49.9 million to pay for the project.

It is estimated that taxpayers will pay .5 mills or $50 per $100,000 of assessed property value for the project. That's on top of the .5 mills they currently contribute to the hospital.

In the worst-case scenario, if the hospital was not able to contribute a penny to the repayment of the debt, taxpayers would have to pay 1.21 mills or $121 per $100,000 of assessed property value.

The risk of that happening is minimal and worth the gamble. Here's why:

There's little doubt the hospital is in need of more than a facelift if it is to keep pace with the needs of the community. The current hospital building was completed in 1971; its last major expansion was in 1986 when the emergency department and a wing for the Family Recovery Center were added. During the hospital's first full year, it recorded 3,185 patient visits; by 2001, that number had grown to 51,944. Recent years have seen a continuous steady increase. Fiscal year 2000 numbers reflect a 7 percent increase in patients over fiscal year 1997. During that same time, the hospital saw 75 to 100 percent growth in inpatient and outpatient surgeries, as well as cardiac rehabilitation. It also saw a 50 to 75 percent increase in imaging procedures and laboratory tests during that time.

Technology has changed the way health care is delivered. There are more high-tech tests, shorter hospital stays and more procedures now best handled as out-patient services. In addition, new federal privacy laws require the hospital do some things differently.

The changing demographics and economic picture of the Kenai Peninsula indicate a community investment in health care is well worth the minimal risk to taxpayers that the hospital expansion project poses. The peninsula's population is increasing and aging. Those older residents will increase the demand for health care services beyond what would be generated by population growth alone. If people can't get the health care they need here, they'll go elsewhere. Why send those people and their money to Anchorage or elsewhere, if there's an opportunity to meet their needs here?

In addition, the peninsula has become an attractive retirement home for increasing numbers of seniors. To continue that trend, accessibility to quality health care that keeps up with the times is necessary. The peninsula must offer the services and specialists its older population requires. It should be noted that the number of people 65 and older living within the service area is expected to increase by more than 20 percent by the year 2005; this age group tends to be the biggest consumer of hospital services.

Some will argue that today's uncertain economy make it the wrong time to ask taxpayers to help foot the bill for the hospital expansion. It's more responsible to argue that factors in today's economy make it the right time. Interest rates are at a 44-year low, and the hospital's architects have said that even a one-year delay would increase the cost of the project by more than $1 million. A longer delay will increase costs even more and erode the foundation of health care on the peninsula. Plus, there is never a good time to raise taxes. While nothing is 100 percent risk-free, central peninsula residents have much more to gain than to lose by approving Proposition No. 2.

The expansion will bring economic benefits to the peninsula. Health care is an important economic engine to the central peninsula; it should be nurtured and allowed to grow. Studies show that most residents who go elsewhere for hospital services do so because the care they need is not available locally. While no one likes to pay more taxes, the tax burden for the hospital project is small compared to the cost and inconvenience of a trip elsewhere for care. In addition, hospital officials are confident that the expansion will help attract needed specialists to the area. That, in turn, will bring more health-care dollars to the community and keep more health-care dollars here.

The overwhelming reason, however, that residents should approve Proposition No. 2 is that it shows their commitment to investing in the quality of life in the community where they live. Residents have expressed their support for local control of the hospital. They have expressed their desire to get the health care they need here. Supporting the hospital expansion is a tangible way of making an investment in this place we call home.



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