Thursday, May 27, 2004

Drake Center levy criticized

Review chairman: Why any tax at all?

By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

In 86 of Ohio's 88 counties, people get long-term care for spinal cord injuries or disabling diseases without having a countywide tax levy to support the services.

So why should the Drake Center get any subsidy at all, much less a 31 percent increase?

That pointed question from Chris Finney, chairman of the Hamilton County Tax Levy Review Committee, was one of several criticisms of the Drake Center that were aired Tuesday night in a four-hour meeting about the center's proposal to put a tax increase on the November ballot.

"From my perspective, there is no question in my mind that we are wasting enormous amounts of money at Drake," Finney said.

The response from Drake defenders: If the Hartwell center didn't exist, people would get care somewhere else, but it would be more expensive and not as good.

"When I look at the results Drake has achieved, I think they are doing something right," said University of Cincinnati economist George Vredeveld, who recently did an economic impact study of the Drake Center. "Are taxpayers getting a good deal? Our study indicates that the answer is yes."

The proposed levy would provide Drake about $20 million a year - up from nearly $15 million a year it gets now. For the owner of a $100,000 home, the tax bill for Drake would grow from about $26 a year to about $34 a year.

That increase, however, far exceeds a goal set by county commissioners to hold special levy tax increases to about 2 percent, or roughly the pace of general inflation

Finney and other committee members peppered Drake chief executive Bobbie Bradford and other Drake officials with questions. Among them:

• Why does nursing care at Drake cost more than the market average for community nursing homes?

Drake sees more severe cases than most community nursing homes, which requires more staff and more equipment. Drake also provides round-the-clock doctor care that many nursing homes don't.

• Why does Drake need to spend $1.7 million this year on marketing, an amount that outpaces many full-scale hospitals?

People still don't understand what Drake does, Bradford said. So Drake needs to market itself to the public, to doctors and hospitals, and to potential employees in a tight labor market. Bradford denied any connection between increased marketing spending this year and the upcoming election.

• Why does Drake lose more than $2 million a year on its physician group, a figure that adds up to more than $110,000 per full-time doctor?

It follows a "hospitalist" model where doctors hired to work exclusively at Drake can check on patients more often than a nursing home or even a hospital-based recovery unit. Such arrangements result in better patient care, but insurers often won't pay the full bill, officials said.

Unconvinced by a stack of reports and hours of testimony so far, Finney said after Tuesday's meeting that new managers should be brought in to run Drake without tax support. If that's not possible, then Drake's mission should be changed to sharply reduce costs.

But supporters say cutting off tax support to Drake would waste millions already invested in rebuilding the campus. Drake could be forced to close, which in turn would force other hospitals and nursing homes to spend millions on increased staff, equipment and buildings to provide similar care.

The debate about Drake will continue next week at a public comment session set for 5 p.m. Tuesday at the county administration building, 138 E. Court St., downtown.


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