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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Benewah County health needs rise

The rapidly rising cost of health care has made Benewah County one of Idaho’s neediest counties, as measured by money received from the Department of Health and Welfare.

Benewah ranked fourth out of 44 counties for 2004 per capita spending by Health and Welfare. It had ranked 14th in 2003.

“We say we don’t have inflation, but there’s bad inflation, especially in health care,” Benewah County Commissioner Jack Buell said Monday.

Health and Welfare last month released the amounts it spent in each county in 2004. The department touted its total $1.15 billion in aid as an investment in the state’s 1.4 million residents. But the numbers also told counties just how well their residents are faring in an apparently improving economy.

“We’ve only done this two years, and in the first year some county commissioners were a little amazed at how much we did help people in their county,” said Tom Shanahan, state Department of Health and Welfare spokesman. “It opened their eyes that there are more people out there in need than they might have thought.”

The agency spent an average of $839 per Idaho resident in 2004. In Benewah County (pop. 9,029), Health and Welfare spent $1,296 per person.

Health and Welfare spent the most per capita – $1,482 – in Lewis County, which is Nez Perce County’s neighbor to the east. Nearly half the county’s 3,768 residents received state assistance with health care, food, child care, foster care, living with disabilities or daily finances.

Butte County, a central Idaho county twice the size of Lewis but with only 2,873 residents, was second with an average of $1,392 per person. Shoshone County (pop. 12,993) was third at $1,302.

Elsewhere in North Idaho, Boundary County (pop. 10,173) ranked 16th and received $960 per person; Bonner County (pop. 39,162) was 26th at $747; and Kootenai County (pop. 117,481) was 27th at $760.

Blaine County, where Sun Valley is located, received the least Health and Welfare dollars, at $205 per person.

“Smaller communities may not get the economies of scale that larger communities get,” said Michelle Britton, Health and Welfare’s regional director for the five northern counties. “They have to have a hospital despite their size.”

Britton said the numbers offer good information about which needs are greatest and in which areas, but statisticians need to break them down more.

“I want to know how many of those on Medicaid, for instance, are elderly, kids, disabled,” she said. “That might tell us what areas we should try to develop services in. The numbers could help communities develop partnerships to solve issues.”

Health and Welfare spent $435 more per person in Benewah County last year than it did in 2003, and pinned the increase on Medicaid costs. Benewah residents claimed $66,000 more from Medicaid in 2004 than 2003, but food stamp use there also increased by $90,000.

Buell theorized his county’s population might have grown, but Health and Welfare figures show Benewah’s population decreased by about 150 residents between 2003 and last year.

“This is not a rich county or rich people, but they raise a surprising amount of money for people when they need it, like cancer patients,” he said. “They are concerned about their citizens, but they don’t know about some of the needs.”

Shoshone County’s state ranking stayed the same in 2003 and 2004. Total health and welfare payments decreased to $16.9 million in 2004 from $17.7 million in 2003. Medicaid payments also decreased, but food stamp support increased by $219,000.

Shoshone County Commissioner Jon Cantamessa said his board hasn’t analyzed the data yet but his county would be in trouble without Health and Welfare.

“What would people be doing for services? Some would fall through the cracks,” he said. “The investment benefit is obvious. This is a county with a weak economy.”

Britton said her experience with North Idaho communities tells her they’d do more to take care of their neighbors if Health and Welfare could provide them with more information.

“What I’ve appreciated about North Idaho communities is the ability of citizens to look at information and try to respond and make changes,” she said.

That information is coming eventually, Shanahan said.

“We developed new software so we could have a broader scope,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll keep refining this, dig deeper.”