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Published May 07. 2010 05:00PM

Hospitals are primarily thought of as places where lives are saved. Now, they are also being recognized as places that provide life support to an ailing economy.

Pennsylvania hospitals provided more than 596,000 hospital and hospital service-related jobs to the commonwealth's workforce and $89.8 billion to the state's economy in 2008, representing a nearly $6 billion increase over 2007, according to an April 29 report released by the Hospital & Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania.

"At a time when statewide unemployment is hovering near the highest level in 25 years, and all signs point to a continued period of joblessness, hospitals continue to be the biggest employers in their communities," according to HAP president /CEO Carolyn F. Scanlan. "Investments in Pennsylvania's hospitals mean investments in our patients, our workforce, and our economy," she said. "As lawmakers craft state and federal budgets, they need to ensure adequate payments for hospitals to remain fiscally healthy and to maintain their status as national leaders in health care quality."

Pennsylvania's hospitals annually care for 1.7 million inpatients and 35.9 million outpatients, and they evaluate 5.8 million injured and ill people in their emergency departments. In 55 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties, hospitals are among the top five employers.

Locally, Blue Mountain Health System employees 988 people. St. Luke's Health Network, which includes St. Luke's Miners Memorial Hospital in Coaldale, employees 430 people.

"Despite the difficult economy, the Blue Mountain Health System has continued to grow our programs and services, thereby adding jobs to the local economy. For example, in May of 2008 we had a total of 973 employees in our system. With the growth of services such as our Adult Behavioral Health Center and our Albrightsville Therapy and Lab Service Centers, we have been able to bring much needed services to our area as well as jobs. Today we have 988 employees with approximately 750 living in Carbon County. With the uncertainty of how health care reform and its many elements will affect us in the near future, we are carefully structuring our budget for continued program and service growth," said BMHS president/CEO Andrew Harris.

Direct hospital employment has stayed relatively steady between December 2008-2009, even as other non-farm employment dropped by 2.9 percent, according to the state Department of Labor and Industry.

But Scanlan warned that if "state and federal budget proposals push for reductions in hospital payments, they will be jeopardizing the very jobs that are keeping many local economies together."

HAP is urging lawmakers to invest in the state's hospitals and health systems by modernizing Medicaid hospital payments, eliminating proposed Medicaid reductions in the state's 2010-2011 budget and by enacting responsible insurance practices to ensure fair payments, reduce administrative burdens, and promote insurance company competition.

Further, HAP recommends that "federal lawmakers, include extending the increase in the Federal Medical Assistance Percentage beyond December 2010; reforming the inequitable and flawed Medicare wage index system; and maintaining the federal tax-exempt status of nonprofit hospitals," the report said.

HAP's report cites the findings of Fitch Ratings that "the viability of nonprofit hospitals has become a community keystone," despite "the evolving elements of health care reform, lingering recessionary effects, continued instability in the financial sector, and government cost-containment efforts."

Scanlan encouraged legislators to continue their support.

"At a time marked by so much uncertainty, lawmakers need to ensure that hospitals remain viable employers in their communities, where they can provide access to quality care, jobs and job-growth opportunities, support other businesses, and stimulate overall local economic activity," she said. "Most importantly, while hospitals continue to weather the impact of the nation's recession, their doors remain open 24 hours a day, seven days a week to provide healing, health, and hope to every patient."

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