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Posted June 16, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Official concerned for costs, funding in face of overhaul


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By James Heffernan -- jheffernan@nvdaily.com

WINCHESTER -- The new president and CEO of Valley Health applauds President Obama for making health care reform a top priority. But like many of his colleagues in the industry, Mark H. Merrill has concerns about what providing universal health coverage would do to patient costs.

"Clearly, President Obama seeks to increase access and reduce cost. That's a very tall order," said Merrill, a veteran health care executive who assumed the top post at Valley Health on June 8.

Granting nearly 50 million uninsured Americans coverage -- a cornerstone of the Obama health care plan -- "creates more regionalization of care," which in turn would mean less government money for hospitals and health care facilities, he said.

Obama has said he wants to cut federal payments to hospitals, as well as Medicare and Medicaid, over 10 years to help pay for his $1 trillion overhaul.

Merrill said another concern is a proposal currently making the rounds in Washington to tax certain health insurance benefits, which he believes will lead people to put off routine, preventative care -- something hospitals across the country are already seeing with the down economy.

"Unfortunately, Americans don't think of health care expenses as out-of-pocket," he said. "When their car breaks down or their roof springs a leak, they'll find a way to pay for it. But when it comes to their health, they still think in terms of insurance and deductibles."

Addressing members of the American Medical Association in Chicago on Monday, Obama said if the nation's ailing health care system is left unattended, it "may go the way of GM -- paying more, getting less and going broke."

"Hopefully, we're not headed down the road of GM," said Merrill, who nonetheless gave credit to Obama for tackling the issue.

"Health care has been kicked down the road by the past six presidents," he said. "Obama has shown the fortitude to do something in his first two years in office. ... So I'm encouraged, but also a little anxious."

Merrill, who came to Winchester from the largest faith-based nonprofit health system in North Texas, takes the reins at Valley Health at an exciting and challenging time, as the regional provider seeks to grow along with the population it serves.

Merrill has set a personal goal to become knowledgeable about the organization, including its various components, employees, trustees and the health care needs of the Northern Shenandoah Valley, within the first 60 to 90 days. Long term, his goal is nothing less than "to have Valley Health recognized nationally as one of the leading health care systems in the country in terms of quality, costs and delivery of services."

His first meeting with the group's board of directors is July 7.

Merrill also wants Valley Health's five hospitals and various member facilities to do a better job of sharing resources, with another of his goals being the implementation of a system-wide electronic medical record system.

The economy presents its own hurdles, he said.

"The biggest challenge is the slow but steady increase in the amount of charity care and bad debt," he said, coupled with residents putting off elective services. All of these scenarios affect a health care organization's bottom line, he said.

Coming from a Presbyterian-based health care system, Merrill said he is encouraged by what he has seen in his first week on the job in Winchester.

"The sanctity of life is something that's evident in most health care organizations. Even though Valley Health is not faith-based, there are chaplains on campus and in the hospitals, and I've seen a commitment on the part of our staff to caring for a patient's body, mind and spirit."

Merrill's wife, Terri, and two teenage children, Madeline, 18, and Hamilton, 14, are still in Texas and will be joining him after the July 4 weekend, he said. His daughter will enroll at his alma mater, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in the fall.

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