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By the end of the month, the Hi-Line’s branch of the Sletten Cancer Institute, next to Northern Montana Hospital, will cease offering radiation therapy to cancer patients.
Roy Hall, the head oncologist at the Hi-Line Sletten Cancer Center, confirmed this morning that he would be leaving by Feb. 22 and patients receiving radiation treatments will have to drive to 115 miles to Great Falls from now on.
The clinic opened less than four years ago after a $6.5 million construction project, $1.2 million of which was raised by community contributions and fundraising efforts.
Karen Ogden, spokesperson for Benefis Hospital in Great Falls, which runs the Sletten Cancer Institute, could not be reached this morning for comment, but her office sent a statement explaining the situation.
According to the Benefis’ statement, “because of a changing regulatory environment and lower-than-anticipated patient use, we have made the difficult decision to discontinue radiation oncology at the center, effective Feb. 22. The facility will continue to operate as a multidisciplinary outreach clinic, offering visits from specialists and enhanced telemedicine offerings. ”
“We regret the necessity to discontinue radiation oncology at the center and realize this will be a hardship for our patients on the Hi-Line. We’re doing everything we can to ease the transition for them, ” said Joe LoDuca, chief administrative officer of the Benefis Sletten Cancer Institute, in the release. “We’ve informed all of our patients and will continue their treatments at our main facility in Great Falls. ”
LoDuca goes on to explain that “the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services mandated in its 2012 regulations that a radiation oncologist must be present when a patient receives radiation treatment. It would be prohibitively expensive to staff the Havre facility with a full-time radiation oncologist. ”
The mandate he uses to justify the closure has been put on hold, after requests from legislators to avoid situations like this. Sen. Jon Tester, in his protests, specifically cited the Hi-Line Sletten Cancer Center as a resource worthy of saving by stopping the mandate.
“In Havre, Montana the Benefis Sletten Hi-Line Cancer Center provided 36 patients with radiation therapy last year, ” Tester said in an Oct. 5 letter to Health and Human Sesrvices Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “The next nearest facility is in Great Falls, Montana which is 115 miles to the south. Requiring patients to travel an additional two hours each way, daily, for fifteen to thirty minutes of treatment, is not only inconvenient, it’s also not the way to treat people fighting cancer. ”
He requested a one-year delay.
In Sebelius’ response, she said the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services “will extend the notice of nonenforcement … for … small rural hospitals with 100 or fewer beds through CY (Calendar year) 2012. ”
“The purpose of the nonenforcement extension is to allow these facilities time to meet the appropriate supervision standard, and to give CMS an opportunity to use the new APC (Ambulatory Payment Classification) Panel review process to consider certain changes in required supervision levels, ” Sebelius continued.
LoDuca said that that exemption for hospitals with fewer than 100 beds would not apply to Benefis, as the Great Falls hospital has 500 beds, and the regulation does not take satellite clinics into account.
“Under the new regulations we are non-compliant, putting us at risk, ” LoDuca said in the release. “And there are no guarantees that the regulations will be changed to accommodate satellite cancer clinics. That uncertainty, coupled with unsustainable financial losses, made this decision necessary. ”
The statement ends by saying, “LoDuca noted that there is always a degree of uncertainty with offering medical services that are subject to changing federal regulations.
“We knew that offering radiation oncology in a rural, satellite clinic carried an element of risk, ” said LoDuca. “However our projections showed it was feasible and we felt it was the right thing to do for the community. The Hi-Line SCC has made a positive impact on many lives and on the community since it opened in 2008. However, the financial and regulatory landscape has changed, and we simply cannot continue to offer radiation oncology in light of the legal and financial risks. We are pleased that we’re able to keep the facility open to serve the community in new ways. ”
CEO and President Dave Henry is out of town and a spokesperson said he didn’t want any Northern Montana Hospital employees to comment this morning, but a few weeks ago, he thanked Tester for his help in ensuring the center would remain a vital part of the hospital.
“Those of us along the Hi-Line appreciate Senator Tester’s support to ensure that we can continue providing critically needed services to our friends and neighbors in rural Montana, ” Henry said in a release from Tester’s office. “His willingness to help maintain full service at the Hi-Line Sletten Cancer Center is critical for maintaining access to complete cancer treatment on the Hi-Line. ”