Several OB/GYN offices no longer taking Medicaid

By Monroe Roark
Times Correspondent

Changes in health care coverage are a constant concern for providers in Henry County and elsewhere, especially for lower-income patients and those without regular health insurance. One vital area in this regard is obstetrics, the treatment of expectant mothers up to and including labor and delivery.

Of course, the vast majority of babies in the county are born at Piedmont Henry Hospital. Almost none of the doctors who practice at the hospital, regardless of their specialty, are actually employed there; they are independent contractors with their own policies regarding financial matters. So while anyone who comes to the hospital with a serious medical condition is treated, payment and compensation after the fact can be complicated.

The Times learned last week that none of the obstetricians practicing at the hospital are accepting Medicaid patients in their own practices. Calls to the two largest OB providers near the hospital - Women’s Health Center and Eagle’s Landing OB/GYN - confirmed that their offices do not accept Medicaid. This is by no means a comprehensive survey of county physicians but can be seen as a fairly accurate barometer of the situation.

By law, any patient who arrives at the hospital’s emergency room is treated regardless of ability to pay. Also, if a pregnant woman goes into labor while at the hospital, even as a visitor having lunch in the cafeteria, she must be cared for there and her child delivered.

“As a not-for-profit health system, Piedmont is committed to providing high-quality, patient-centered care to the communities we serve,” said Piedmont Henry CEO Deborah Armstrong last week in a written statement to the Times. “We treat all patients with acute medical needs, including those with Medicaid. Most physicians, including obstetricians, who practice at our hospitals are not employed by Piedmont. As private practitioners, these doctors decide which insurance plans they choose to accept.”

But the Medicaid situation will almost certainly affect many low-income women who now might have to travel outside the county for pre-natal care depending upon where they live. This can make matters worse for women who are already considered high-risk.

Several medical professionals told the Times that the change regarding Medicaid is because so many women in that category are high-risk because of smoking, diabetes or other health issues relating to insufficient care in the past or even lifestyle choices. Doctors who already pay very high premiums for malpractice insurance do not want to take the chance of delivering babies with medical problems unrelated to their professional care and possibly facing financial or litigious consequences.

Hands of Hope Clinic executive director Elizabeth “BJ” Mathis learned about this situation shortly after coming on board a few months ago at the county’s only charitable medical and dental clinic. As that facility does not provides obstetric or pre-natal care, she has begun looking around to see how various community agencies can address the issue together.

“If there is a gap in services like that, it creates a huge problem for the community as a whole,” said Mathis. “If low-income women without access to transportation have to go outside the county for their doctor visits, there will be a host of other medical problems.”

Hands of Hope Clinic is actually located on the grounds of the hospital, paying $3 rent per year for its offices. Piedmont Henry also pays for a portion of the clinic’s primary medical staff salaries.

“Piedmont is a great supporter of the clinic,” said Mathis. “They really care about what is going on in the community, and the current administration has done a phenomenal job.”

Another local organization concerned about the issue is the Pregnancy Resource Center of Henry County, which offers pregnancy verification but very little beyond that in the way of medical services.

“We give free pregnancy tests and limited ultrasound services to provide a woman with proof of pregnancy,” said PRC director Sonja Hegwood. “Most women in the past have used that to apply for Medicaid.”

Hegwood said she confirmed within the past two weeks that some of her organization’s primary referrals still accept Medicaid patients but she could not say which of those still actually deliver babies.

“It is a growing concern that will result in a challenge for women who depend on Medicaid for a healthy delivery,” she added. “We are expanding our services in well-woman care in a effort to fill in the gap.”

Hegwood emphasized the need for proper medical care above and beyond what agencies such as hers provide.

“We will not take the place of a doctor but will continue to provide pregnancy education to help women have the best outcome they can have,” she said. “Nothing takes the place of your own health care provider. It is so vital.”

The conversation is expected to continue between all of these organizations on how to close that gap.

“Access to care is a critical issue and our leaders maintain ongoing discussions with local partners about how to best address the healthcare needs of our community,” said Arm-strong.