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Health study recommends alliance
Ricketson 3
Outgoing Fort Stewart Growth Management Partnership Director Jeff Ricketson, left, accepts a plaque of appreciation from Liberty County Commission Chairman John McIver - photo by Danielle Hipps

A recent strategic health study recommends that health-care providers in Liberty, Long, Bryan and Tattnall counties create an alliance to offer more comprehensive care.

That was the primary recommendation of the PDA Health Planning Management Services study coordinated through the Fort Stewart Growth Management Partnership with federal funding.

PDA President Nancy Lane presented recommendations Tuesday during the final Fort Stewart Growth Management Partnership meeting with Director Jeff Ricketson at the helm.

In 2010, the health-care industry in the area was an estimated $550 million business, and it is projected to grow to $704 million by 2030, Lane said. But about 64 percent of care recipients leave the four-county region for inpatient care.

"This is a serious leakage, and more of it is leaking out than probably should," Lane said.

The system lapse stems from the fact that there are three distinct health care systems in the area — Winn Army Community Hospital, Veterans Affairs health centers, and private practices — and they do not coordinate, communicate or combine resources with each other, Lane said.

A 2011 population count indicates the four counties have 66,600 who are served by the civilian system when VA beneficiaries and prison inmates are removed from the equation.

"The uninsured represent 33 percent of the 66,600 regular users of the civilian system. This ratio of one uninsured to two insured is far higher than the national average and is the reason that civilian providers need subsidies from tax bases, grants or philanthropies to survive," the study abstract said.

Other issues with the civilian system include that is lacks a single voice and different operators do not share information — which has fostered a prescription drug habit at a greater rate than the state.

The use of prescription drugs could be curbed if medical providers would band together and tighten their requirements for writing prescriptions, she added.

Rates of binging and excessive drinking also are four times higher than the national average, with 20 percent of Liberty’s population qualifying compared to 15 percent statewide and only 5 percent nationally.

Domestic violence rates per 100,000 people also are two times higher than the state in Liberty and slightly above — though declining — in Bryan. Lane said there is a great correlation between the drinking and domestic violence.

Further, private providers’ dependence on fees makes them more vulnerable to population fluctuations, which can pack a big punch when troops are deployed, she added.

Consequently, the civilian system has no external independent source of funding to build capital for responding to the fluctuation military, retiree and dependent need for services, and the military has no mechanism for permitting the civilian system to use its resources, such as equipment and facilities. The resulting long waits are part of what encourage people to seek care outside the area.

"You’ve got to strengthen your civilian health care planning," Lane said.

She added that the Liberty County Hospital Authority is the strongest civilian provider in the area due to its public/private status. The community should discuss ways to expand its authority beyond Liberty County and incorporate military, VA and civilian leaders in the dialogue.

Hinesville Mayor Jim Thomas asked how the board could implement such an alliance and whether models are available for example.

Short term, Lane said they might pursue grant funds or the tax base to support a staff member to analyze local resources. She also suggested establishing a forum where all providers begin to touch base about their offerings and limitations to begin the dialogue about addressing holes in the community.

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Hospital Authority in North Carolina also serves as a health care authority model that now manages services across the Carolinas, Lane added.

She later stressed that she does not want to undersell the positives but that too many areas need attention.

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