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Their piece of the pie

$111 million earmarked for hospitals in law

By Matthew DoBias
Posted: March 16, 2009 - 12:01 am ET

Within the $410 billion appropriations bill signed by President Barack Obama last week are hundreds of the controversial federal grants known as earmarks that will be given to hospitals, medical centers and health systems.

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Federal lawmakers carved out an estimated $111.3 million in taxpayer dollars for close to 400 of those organizations, mostly for construction and technology upgrades, as part of the spending package approved by Congress and signed into law, according to data from the Washington-based Taxpayers for Common Sense.

The earmarked spending, submitted by members from both the House and Senate, range anywhere from $148,000 on the low end to $5.7 million on the high end, with the majority in the mid to low six figures, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense data.

The list of hospitals included in the legislation is staggering for its size. About one in 12 of U.S. hospitals will get federal dollars under the direct funding provisions.

Some of those projects include 179-bed Ohio Valley Medical Center, Wheeling, W.Va., which will receive $5.7 million for the construction of a child and adolescent psychiatric facility; the 530-bed University of Mississippi Medical Center, Jackson, which is in line for $2.9 million for the construction of a new building; and 247-bed Children’s Memorial Hospital, Chicago, which will get $1.1 million for facilities and equipment for the hospital and an affiliated research center, according to the data.

The money comes as many others are putting capital spending plans on hold because of the faltering economy (See story, p. 13).

In a written statement, Brian Felici, president and chief executive officer of the Ohio Valley Medical Center, thanked Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) for securing the money and for his “faith in us and in what we do for the youth of our region.”

Often, the earmark process is needed to help fund programs that the state or other agencies otherwise can’t. David Dzielak, associate vice chancellor at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, Jackson, said that the $2.9 million they’re about to get is needed to complete a new eight-story research center. The alliance has used the appropriations process to account for half of the total price tag and plans to use bonds to pay for the rest.

“It’s politically sensitive and people make a fuss,” Dzielak said about the earmark process in general. “But we really appreciate the earmark process here in Mississippi. We’re not a very rich state … it’s funding the state can’t support itself.”

A spokewoman for Children’s Memorial Hospital praised the funding. “These life-saving projects will not only benefit critically ill children, but will create a broad range of job opportunities in the state of Illinois,” Kathleen Keenan said in an e-mail.

Another provider, Olympic Medical Center, a 78-bed hospital in Port Angeles, Wash., is expected to get $714,000 from the law—money it plans to use for an electronic health-record system. Bobby Beeman, a spokeswoman for the medical center, said the funding came about through conversations it had with federal lawmakers. “We just worked with senators and congressmen to obtain funding” for the EHR, she said. The specific earmark came from the state’s two Democratic senators, Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray, as well as Rep. Norman Dicks, also a Democrat, whose district includes the medical center.

The hospital earmarks, part of the more than 8,500 that have been identified, are a relatively small portion of the more than $7.7 billion in parochial spending found in the law by Taxpayers for Common Sense, which includes billions for healthcare in general. The legislative package sets budgetary spending through September for nine federal agencies, allotting $30.3 billion to the National Institutes of Health for disease research, $6.6 billion for public-health programs under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and $2.2 billion for community health centers, according to the House Appropriations Committee.

The legislation also includes funding for a variety of workforce training programs, rural-health outposts and programs to help seniors. The law allots $171 million for nurse training and education services and $222 million for physician training. The measure also provides a total of $289 million to help aid the more than 1,200 small, rural hospitals serving more than 775,000 patients each year.

The law allots $22 million toward a new initiative to reduce infections at hospitals

and clinics.

But it was the earmarks in the legislation that came under attack from Republican lawmakers, fiscal watchdogs and other interest groups for the amount of targeted spending

it contains.

The message was not lost on the president, whose campaign pledge to rein in such spending was tested when he signed the law. In return, Obama reiterated his intent to walk back what many see as the overuse of the earmark process from federal lawmakers. While praising earmarks “when done right,” Obama also scolded congressional members for those that have “been used as a vehicle for waste, fraud and abuse.”

“There are times where earmarks may be good on their own, but in the context of a tight budget, might not be our highest priority,” Obama said.

Charles Konigsberg, chief budget counsel for the Concord Coalition—which aims to keep the federal government fiscally sound—said that too often earmarks get trivialized on Capitol Hill and by the media, which ends up masking more pressing budgetary concerns. “From our perspective, while it’s obviously important to address the issues of earmarks, it has become something of a red herring,” Konigsberg said. “That’s not really where the money is,” he said.

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