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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Health care is big business in Spokane

Health care accounts for one in five Spokane jobs, and there’s opportunity for even more, asserts a report released Monday.

David Bunting, an Eastern Washington University economics professor, determined that about 50,000 jobs in Spokane County are related to caring for people, whether that’s a nurse or hospital housekeeper, a health-insurance executive or a clinic secretary. Bunting’s study is based on 2001 figures, a turbulent year in Spokane’s economy. Still, he said, the health-care industry here is relatively stable and is unlikely to have changed much since then.

It’s not a surprise that so many people have their livelihoods staked to health care, but it is startling just how dependent Spokane’s economy is on one industry when compared with Seattle or other western cities about Spokane’s size, Bunting said.

He pored over the results to ensure the numbers were accurate, and kept coming to the same conclusion, he said: “Health care is dominant. It is twice as important to Spokane as it is to Seattle.”

Along with the jobs, about 20 percent of the wages paid in Spokane are health-care dollars, the study found.

Health care far outpaces the jobs and salaries in education, another of Spokane’s major economic sectors.

The report bolsters an effort by the Spokane Regional Chamber of Commerce and several businesses and organizations to target economic development efforts on health care. Any business pays attention to a customer who accounts for 20 percent of revenues, explained chamber CEO Rich Hadley.

The chamber and several businesses and organizations sponsored Bunting’s report. They plan to refer to it during a June trip to Washington D.C., where business leaders and chamber officials will focus on issues and legislation of interest to hospitals and other health care businesses.

The report is full of good economic news for Spokane.

Patrick Jones, the executive director of EWU’s Institute for Public Policy and Economic Analysis and co-author of the study, said health care offers stability to Spokane.

“It’s not cyclical like so many other businesses,” he said. “Health care is based on long-term demographics.”

Yet there are problems.

Despite the good wages and ample job opportunities, the poor financial condition of Spokane hospitals threatens what should be a growth industry.

About half the revenues at Sacred Heart and Deaconess medical centers come from the government’s Medicaid and Medicare programs.

Sacred Heart president Mike Wilson said lagging reimbursement rates hurt hospitals’ finances. He also urged business leaders attending a special forum on health care to lobby for tort reform — an effort by doctors, hospitals and insurers to cap jury awards to victims of medical malpractice.

Attorneys argue that juries provide the necessary checks and balances on an industry where abuses and mistakes have profound consequences.

Health care ranks as the nation’s largest single industry. More than $1.4 trillion — or 14 percent of national spending — was tied to health care in 2001, the study said.

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