Year in Review: Health policy, hospital expansion top news in 2017

Mark Merrill, president and CEO of Valley Health, speaks about the new surgery center at Winchester Medical Center on Thursday evening. Max Lee/Daily

With Congress trying numerous times to repeal the Affordable Care Act, 2017 was a busy year in health care news in the Northern Shenandoah Valley.

The year saw insurers leave the Affordable Care Act marketplace across the state and in the region.

Last year, Warren and Frederick counties and the City of Winchester all had three insurers offering plans through the ACA exchanges, while Shenandoah County had two insurers offering plans. This year, all parts of the region have only one insurer offering ACA plans.

Meanwhile, Congress missed its deadline to re-authorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides children in low-income families with cheap health care.

CHIP also provides grant funding for a number of programs, affecting the Shenandoah Community Health Clinic and the Warren County Public Schools.

The Shenandoah Community Health Clinic receives grant funding through CHIP for services it provides at Ashby Lee Elementary School. Warren County Schools, meanwhile, offers behavioral health programs for at-risk students that are funded through the federal program.

But while Congress missed its deadline, states had carry-over funds that have allowed them to continue funding the program temporarily. On Dec. 21, Congress extended funding for the program until March.

But the news wasn’t limited to stories involving federal health care programs.

Valley Health also continued growing and expanding. The hospital system opened a “quick care” center in Front Royal, where patients can receive treatment for minor illnesses and injuries.

Valley Health opened two urgent care centers — a $2.7 million facility at Rutherford Crossing in Winchester and a facility at Riverton Commons in Front Royal — and an outpatient surgery center in Winchester.

A number of hospital systems across the country have been building urgent care centers in recent years. Valley Health CEO Mark Merrill said in October, at the ribbon cutting for the Rutherford Crossing urgent care, that this was because patients are not visiting primary-care doctors as often as they used to.

“People want accessible, convenient health care after hours, and they’re not as wedded to going to the same practitioner,” Merrill said. “So we try to make it convenient.”

Valley Health is also moving toward replacing Warren Memorial Hospital with a new facility. The Warren County School Board voted to trade land with the hospital system, after being approached by Valley Health officials.

The deal will give Valley Health land near the replacement for Warren Memorial Hospital that the hospital system could use to construct signs. Warren Memorial, in return, received land near Warren County Middle School.

The Valley Health Board of Trustees voted in December to move forward on plans to construct Warren Memorial Hospital.

Unlike the current Warren Memorial Hospital, the replacement facility will not offer any obstetric services.

It’s becoming increasingly common for hospitals to stop offering obstetric services. A September report in the health policy journal “Health Affairs” stated that obstetric services are often the first services to go when a hospital is struggling to make money.

That has meant that over half of all rural counties do not have any hospitals offering obstetric services, according to the report.

The loss of obstetric services can mean that pregnant women have to travel long distances in order to receive care. That was already a problem in Shenandoah County, where, according to a community health needs assessment filed by Valley Health in 2016, women in Shenandoah County struggled to receive access to obstetric services.

Instead of visiting Warren Memorial Hospital, some patients may have to travel to Winchester Medical Center in order to receive obstetric services. Winchester Medical Center has recently invested in upgrading its maternal health care services.

“I think Valley Health has invested a lot of money in upgrading its maternal fetal medicine program and obstetrics department and labor and delivery at Winchester Medical Center,” Warren Memorial Hospital President Floy Heater said earlier this month.

Valley Health plans on opening the new facility in 2020.