Dr. Gary Ramage treats a patient at McKenzie County Hospital in Watford City, N.D., one of the oil rich states many reeling medical centers. (Matthew Staver/New York Times)
According to a New York Times article posted Wednesday, the economic impact from the nation’s most recent oil boom isn’t limited to gas prices. With the increasing number of wells opened each day, the number of industry health problems has also risen, and brought the complications of uninsured patients with them.
Focusing on North Dakota – a state whose oil impact can quite literally be seen from space – the article examines a range of injuries, such as burns and broken bones that are associated with the rough workplace of the oil industry.
Though the physical pain may be felt by the thousands of new workers who have flooded the area, it is their uninsured status that has left the regions medical centers reeling. It's a problem that's also been reported in parts of Pennsylvania's development in the Marcellus Shale.
The $1.2 million debt accumulated by North Dakota’s McKenzie County Hospital is an unfathomable 2,000 percent more than it was the past four years ago, the hospital’s chief executive Daniel Kelly told the New York Times.
The hospital also receives 300 more emergency room visits a year, a testament to the serious dangerous nature of the oil business that has led to a 200 percent increase in traumatic injuries occurring in the region since 2007.
According to Darrold Bertsch the president of the state’s Rural Health Association, the 12 medical facilities in western North Dakota saw their debt rise by 46 percent from 2011-2012. “Plain and simple, those kinds of things are not sustainable,” said Bertsch, who added that nine of the 12 facilities reported operating losses.
A recent article by the Observer-Reporter also reported that Jersey Shore Hospital in north-central Pennsylvania – a hotbed for shale drilling – had an operating loss of $770,000; its first operating loss in almost five years.
“I don’t think it’s a sign of the economy. I think it’s the influx of the gas, industry and those who lack insurance,” Jersey Shore Hospital president and CEO Carey Plummer told the Williamsport Sun-Gazette.
To prevent such economic failure, hospitals such as the McKenzie County Hospital are taking measures to more accurately track down payments from patients, who are more frequently giving false information to avoid a steep bill. Mr. Kelly is also urging the state to use some of its $1 billion surplus on its health care facilities, along with a study of health care issues in oil regions and low-interest loans for hospitals.
Governor Jack Dalrymple is working to fix his states medical issues, with a proposed $68 million set to be spent on a new medical school building at the University of North Dakota and $6 million devoted to expanding the nursing program at Lake Region State College. The state’s rural hospitals have also received increased Medicaid funding thanks to the Republican governor.
Jeffrey L. Zent, a spokesman for the governor, told the Times that, “Health care is certainly one of those areas that was targeted early on as we’ve seen growth out west.”
Population growth has come quickly to the state, whose capital has less than 100,000 permanent residents. Towns like Williston – considered the heart of the oil boom – have grown from fewer than 15,000 in 2010 to as many as 33,000 residents. The towns have grown so rapidly that many streets lack street signs, causing logistical problems for the health care industry which often has trouble finding hurt workers in the hastily thrown together camps that comprise part of the town.
“My work is no longer small-town work,” local doctor Gary Ramage told the Times. Before the boom, Dr. Ramage covered the emergency room and a clinic; now, much like many of those working in the health care industry in North Dakota, he has more patients than he can handle.