January 16, 2011 in Idaho

Ward a leader in hospital fight

Former House contender is CEO of private facility in Post Falls
John Miller Associated Press
 

Ward
(Full-size photo)

BOISE – Eight months after his 2010 U.S. House campaign imploded, Vaughn Ward has re-entered the fray of public debate.

Ward, the U.S. Marine Reserve lieutenant colonel upset in last spring’s GOP primary election by Raul Labrador, is now chief executive of the private Northwest Specialty Hospital in Post Falls.

From his offices near the Spokane River, he’s helping lead the latest charge by private hospitals and independent doctors who want to add to their patient rolls by forcing their way into the state’s private health care networks, over the networks’ objections.

A bill to do just that died last year in the House, but the measure is back this year. So too, now, is Ward.

An Iraq war veteran, Ward has inherited the Capitol’s equivalent of the Battle for Fallujah – a street fight among hospitals, doctors and insurance companies that’s supercharged because all the players have buckets of cash.

At least 27 lobbyists are working the issue, according to the Idaho secretary of state.

Ward took the CEO job in September.

Interviewed Thursday, he managed a rueful chuckle about his disastrous GOP congressional run last year that became fodder for late-night TV comedians. His campaign website was criticized for cribbing documents used by other U.S. House members, and there were allegations he lifted words from Barack Obama to announce his own candidacy.

He discounts the suggestion that a big win in this hospital fight might rehabilitate his political image. He’s not planning another run, he said.

“I have 130 employees that I have to get paychecks to every week,” he said. “I care about this issue because I think we’re right.”

With the legislation, Ward’s hospital – and others like it in Idaho, as well as the Idaho Medical Association doctors group – want to break up what they call a monopoly on patients by networks such as the North Idaho Health Care Network.

This band of doctors and hospitals in Idaho’s five northern counties contracts with insurance companies such as Blue Cross and Regence Blue Shield. Their model is simple: Patients pay less for treatment at in-network facilities, more for care outside the network.

Private hospitals like Ward’s argue that being boxed out of these networks hurts competition.

Treasure Valley Hospital Chief Executive Officer Nick Genna contends this bill will help hundreds of independent doctors, laboratories, physical therapists, imaging centers, even midwives across the state get access to more patients, as well as cut treatment costs.

So far, however, it’s been a losing fight, in state court in 2008 and in last year’s Legislature.

Community hospitals and insurers that favor the networks are hitting back, arguing that allowing Ward’s and Genna’s facilities to muscle in would disrupt systems set up to provide a broad range of efficient, high-quality treatment at the lowest overall cost for patients and employers.

“They’re trying to force their business model into another business model,” said House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston and a former executive at Regence Blue Shield.

Fred Wood, R-Burley and a physician, also contends private hospitals would siphon away patients for lucrative surgical procedures, leaving community hospitals less able to support cash-draining emergency rooms. Specialty hospitals “take all the profit centers out … and shed all the risk,” Wood said.

As the fight escalates, Ward suddenly finds himself squaring off against former allies.

He and David Lehman, a lobbyist in Boise, got their political starts with Dirk Kempthorne, Idaho’s former Republican U.S. senator and governor. And Lehman advised Ward on his campaign last spring.

But Lehman now represents Kootenai Medical Center, one of the companies trying to kill the bill. Lehman contends it runs afoul of the limited-government philosophy that Ward championed on the campaign trail because his hospital now wants to tinker with the rights of businesses to sign private contracts.

“I think it will be difficult for anyone to explain how (the bill) is not anti-competitive and government intervention at its worst,” Lehman said.

Ward has been actively pushing the issue for months, corralling lawmakers in August at Gov. Butch Otter’s four-day Governor’s Cup golf tournament in North Idaho. And he’ll testify at the Legislature, but only if he thinks it will help his hospital’s cause.

Democratic Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, who helped kill last year’s bill, said most lawmakers will listen to what Ward has to say if he comes before them, and not allow his campaign failure to prejudice their views.

“It’s bigger than one person,” Burgoyne said. “I’m not going to say the messenger is never relevant. But I’m going to try to look beyond that. People work really hard not to personalize things.”

Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls and a supporter of the measure, lives two miles from Ward’s hospital. They’ve spoken often about this, including at a Dec. 14 meeting called by Otter for opposing sides to talk out differences.

From what Henderson saw there, Ward proved he’s a steady public policy hand, not a gaffe-fraught U.S. House wannabe that national political pundits called the “worst candidate ever.”

“I didn’t see any indication people were thinking, ‘Hey, there’s the unsuccessful candidate for Congress,’ ” Henderson said.

© Copyright 2011 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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