Local hospitals take on 638 employees in hiring frenzy

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 Both Flathead Valley hospitals have spent the last few months bringing in top-notch specialists in a rash of hiring that has involved a total of 638 new employees, a net gain of 185.

Representatives from both Kalispell Regional Medical Center and North Valley Hospital, however, said that while the Affordable Care Act is a factor in the surge, community growth is the main reason. 

Catherine Todd, the senior director for business development and community relations at North Valley, said many of the specialist hirings at the Whitefish hospital were just following a community needs assessment. Much is yet to be determined about the new health-care act. 

“I think the real answer is that we really don’t know for sure what the impact of ACA will be,” Todd wrote in an email. “We could see many of our patients coming in with insurance which could mean that we experience less charity care and bad debt.”

North Valley Hospital provided more than $2 million in charity care and realized $3.2 million in bad debt last year.

Jim Oliverson, vice president at KRMC, agreed with Todd’s sentiments. KRMC gave $22.5 million in charity care last year and racked up $18 million in bad debt. He believes these numbers will fall drastically and the hospital will cut doctor fees accordingly to increase affordability.

“We knew something was coming for a long time,” Oliverson said. “So we had reduced costs. The most expensive hospital is not always the best one.”

Kalispell Regional has hired 545 people in the last 12 months. That includes 18 new physicians and staff at the new Newman Outpatient Counseling Center, the Flathead Valley Community College student health clinic and the new surgery tower. Kalispell Regional Healthcare has 2,814 full- and part-time employees.

Last year at this time, KRH employed 2,688 people. The 120 net gain of new hires consists largely of doctors and support staff.

North Valley Hospital has hired 93 employees in the last year, a third of whom are registered nurses. Several physicians, technicians and mid-level providers also were hired along with a dedicated geriatrician. 

Several doctors are not employed specifically by the hospital but are on staff there. These include a specialist in pediatrics and internal medicine as well as a podiatrist. North Valley employs 398 people, 59 more than last year.

Margaret Bumgarner, the senior director of physician services at North Valley, thought the growth was a big step toward caring for Flathead residents, but not the last one.

“There is projected to be a shortage of primary care,” she said. “Or not a shortage as much as a distribution problem. We don’t want to get behind the curve.”

North Valley, Kalispell Regional and the Flathead City-County Health Department completed a joint community needs assessment earlier this year. This sort of survey is required by the Affordable Care Act every three years to make sure health providers are meeting the needs of the community and for tax-exempt status.

Both hospital officials acknowledge the threat of bad debt still exists.

“Bronze coverage is expected to attract a majority of the enrollees because it will be the least-expensive option to buy on the Exchange,” Todd wrote. “But it will carry the highest deductibles — running in the thousands of dollars. Many fear that Bronze enrollees will be unable or unwilling to pay their deductibles, resulting in a surge of bad debt.”

The Affordable Care Act in Montana allows residents to buy one of four “metal” plans from three insurance providers, giving health-care shoppers 12 options to insure themselves.

Oliverson said the growing need for medical services in the Flathead was the reason behind the hirings, and the hospitals would have to adapt.

“It just keeps getting bigger,” he said. “A few years ago we passed the 10,000-surgery mark, and it just continues to climb up.”

He added that bad debt was not yet a concern for KRMC as it had been for the massive Cleveland Clinic, which had announced layoffs.

“We are expecting to still expand,” Oliverson said. “Other hospitals really let things get out of hand. Layoffs are not in the picture here. They haven’t even been discussed.”

Some of the new physician positions at Kalispell Regional are highly specialized and include two neurosurgeons, a radiation oncologist, a pediatric neurologist, a cardiologist and neonatologist. Doctors scheduled to join the staff next year include an orthopedic surgeon and gastrologist. 

All of these positions are new and are part of the Kalispell hospital’s push to keep Flathead patients in the valley rather than going to Missoula, Helena or Spokane. Hirings at both hospitals come from across the nation. 

“Our goal is to keep people here if we can,” Oliverson said. “We’ve been very busy. It’s a good problem to have.”

North Valley Hospital has similar goals, and most of the new hires are to alleviate pressure on existing doctors. Bumgarner said it’s important for the hospital to keep up with growth, since it can take more than a year to bring a doctor to work.

Kalispell Regional Healthcare also has hired a few new family practitioners to help with the potential rush of newly insured people under the Affordable Care Act.

Representatives from both hospitals say that the Affordable Care Act won’t cause undue strain on the ample services available in Kalispell and Whitefish.

Reporter Ryan Murray may be reached at 758-4439 or at rmurray@dailyinterlake.com.

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