At forum on Wyoming Medical Center deal, equal doses of support and skepticism

The final public forum on the pending sale of Wyoming Medical Center to an out-of-state hospital giant began with a state senator flatly opposing the deal and concluded with physician-members of WMC’s board throwing their full weight behind the plan.

The hourlong meeting, held by the Natrona County Commission on Tuesday night, was the second and final forum scheduled by the county to allow the public — including WMC physicians and leaders — to voice their support or opposition for the proposed $200 million deal between WMC and Banner Health, which would see the latter facility absorb the Casper hospital. The county owns WMC’s physical assets, and any sale of them requires approval by the commission.

“Let me say that I look at this proposed sale as a high-risk gamble on the future of our community,” Casper Sen. Charlie Scott told the County Commission on Tuesday night. Scott co-chairs the Legislature’s health committee and has been increasingly focused on hospital prices in recent years. “If everything works out right, we’ll have additional investment. We’ll be able to get more referrals in, build the volume at our hospital and things will be fine. If it doesn’t work out right, I think we could wind up eventually as simply a feeder to hospitals elsewhere with a second-rate facility here.”

Scott added that he was “concerned” that if the county sold WMC to Banner and Banner chipped away services or referred patients to other facilities, the county would have little recourse to stop them or protest. He worried that the deal “could wind up a disaster.”

“I would also say, as I’ve got into this, I’ve never heard a convincing explanation of why we need to do it,” he said.

The sale, which officials have said has been considered in more abstract terms for years, would fold WMC into Banner’s massive, multi-billion-dollar-a-year system. WMC officials say the acquisition will give them stability heading into a perpetually uncertain health care future while increasing their negotiating power and ability to bring more types of care to central Wyoming. Dr. Mark Dowell, a board member of the hospital, said later Tuesday night that the hospital was “bleeding” patients out of state and that WMC will be “choked out” as health care evolves further.

It is indeed true that a significant chunk of patients leave Wyoming; Michele Chulick, WMC’s CEO, has said that as much as a quarter of care leaves the state for cheaper services elsewhere. But, health experts have said, that’s because of the high cost of care in Wyoming: Patients and insurers can find cheaper procedures by traveling to Denver or Salt Lake City than by staying in their own Wyoming communities.

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