WCAX Investigates: The ripple effect of wait times at Vt. hospitals

ST. JOHNSBURY, Vt. (WCAX) WCAX News continues to investigate wait times at Vermont hospitals.

We already told you about the impact on patients who had to wait for help from specialists. And you heard about how hiring those doctors is more challenging in Vermont.

Now, we're digging into another ripple effect of the wait times. Our Cat Viglienzoni talked to a regional hospital that says when the larger hospitals are full, they're forced to send patients hundreds of miles away.

It may look quiet, but Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital is busy. Too busy.

"We've been noticing a real bump in volumes," Chief Medical Officer Dr. Michael Rousse said.

Rousse says they started noticing capacity issues last September. The 25-bed hospital now averages 20 patients a day. Last year, it was 16. And when they can't provide the level of specialist care a patient needs, or if the patient has to stay in the hospital for more than a few days, they have to transfer the patient to a larger center. But...

"Then we're finding we don't have any place for them to go," Rousse said.

Their primary transfer hospital is the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, about an hour down the road. But Dr. Rousse says Dartmouth has turned down almost 300 transfers a month. He says the University of Vermont Medical Center is sometimes also unable to take their transfers.

"Everybody is busting at the seams," Rousse said.

So, they've had to send patients as far away as Massachusetts or Maine because those were the next available beds.

"If you can imagine, here we are in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, and we're sending somebody 300 miles away for something that they could get locally here," Rousse said. "So that leads to some dissatisfaction."

And cost. Rousse says the ambulance ride alone is tens of thousands of dollars. And there are insurance issues. Rousse says the state's system of smaller hospitals that feed into larger ones was not designed to handle the aging population.

"These are not simple problems," he said.

Tough problems that the Green Mountain Care Board acknowledges.

"We're all getting older. We're all going to need more care," said Kevin Mullen, the chair of the Green Mountain Care Board.

Mullin says the lack of openings at larger hospitals is the biggest complaint they hear from Vermont's medical professionals. He's aware of the risk to patients who have to wait for appropriate care.

"It doesn't do the patient any good at all because anybody will tell you the quicker they get the right care, the quicker their recovery will be," Mullin said. "So, it's problematic all the way around."

But the solutions aren't clear either. Rousse says the Green Mountain Care Board-- charged with controlling health care costs-- won't allow them to expand because they would exceed their net patient revenue. But that puts the hospital in what he calls an "impossible situation."

"We're being told we can't provide more services," Rousse said, "but the demand for more services is ever increasing."

WCAX News spoke with the Green Mountain Care Board chair Thursday to follow up on NVRH's situation. Kevin Mullin says NVRH has been growing faster than other hospitals, and not every hospital in Vermont is seeing their patient numbers.

We asked whether they would be allowed to exceed their net patient revenue and he said they look at hospitals on an individual basis. But he did note part of NVRH's concern stems from their critical access hospital status. They're limited to the 25 beds and patients can't stay for more than four days. And if they exceed that, they could lose about $7 million in federal funding.