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Shriners Hospital saved for now

Date: 7/14/2009

By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD -- The decision made to keep the Shriners Hospital open in Springfield -- in fact, all 22 hospitals in the system open -- includes changes such as accepting insurance and government payments for treatments and building alliances with other medical centers, but retains the core philosophy of the hospital no patient or family member of a patient will ever have to pay for services.

At the press conference Friday, Philip Thomas, the chairman of the Springfield hospital's board of governors, explained the decision made by the Shriners at its annual international convention earlier last week conducted in San Antonio, Texas, was to accept a new business plan for the hospitals.

The decision saves more than 200 local jobs at the Springfield facility, which has an operating budget of $20 million. Allen Zippin, the emeritus chairman of the hospital, explained to Reminder Publications the hospital also does business with about 100 vendors.

"The ripple effect [of closing the hospital] would have been huge," Zippin said.

Thomas cautioned, though, that more changes in the future would be needed to meet both the changing economic picture and the evolving needs of patients.

"Closure could come up again any time," he said.

Thomas said that an alliance with Baystate Medical Center (BMC) has been in discussions for over a year, well before the stock market downturn that caused the Shriners Hospital endowment value to plummet.

"On both sides the talks have been very favorable," Zippin said.

Before the crash, Thomas said the national organization knew it would have to add $4 to 5 billion to the endowment, from which the hospitals derive their operating budgets.

The Springfield hospital had developed an alternative operating plan, Thomas, explained, prior to the San Antonio convention. Thomas declined to offer details of the plan, stating it was still under development and review.

It was this plan plus the out-pouring of support and donations from the public that helped to keep the hospital open, he added.

Thomas said that changes in patient care have altered how the hospital operates. Due to medical innovations, the Springfield hospital has more out-patient care than in-patent care.

Thomas said he doesn't see any "down side" to accepting insurance payments as other charitable hospitals such as St. Jude's already does. The challenge for the Shriners hospital system is setting up the internal departments and staff for the payments as the 22 hospitals are in 17 states, all with different regulations, he explained.

Zippin said the fact that BMC already accepts insurance payments "should help us more quickly."

"This is a hospital for kids like none other and it's worth fighting for, Thomas said.