By Patrick Guinane
The Times of Northwest Indiana

INDIANAPOLIS - The state Senate voted 48-0 on March 27 to consider putting the future of Gary's only hospital in the government's hands.

The measure, crafted by Senate Health Committee Chairwoman Patricia Miller, R-Indianapolis, calls for a summer study group to evaluate ways to convert United Methodist-related Methodist Hospitals' financially struggling Northlake Campus in Gary to a city or county hospital.

"Of all places to not have a county hospital, Lake County does not have a county hospital," Miller told Senate colleagues just before the unanimous vote. She said the situation is unique among the state's large metropolitan areas.

The Health Finance Commission, one of the General Assembly's standing study committees, would weigh the options available for transforming Methodist Northlake, now a nonprofit operation, into a government hospital.

The move comes even as Porter County officials map out plans to do nearly the opposite by turning that county's hospital over to for-profit operators.

Ed Charbonneau, interim president and CEO for Methodist Hospitals, said the company, which also operates a Southlake Campus in Merrillville, isn't looking to give up on Gary. But he said the proposed legislative study might produce positive results.

"Our primary objective right now is to put ourselves into a position where we're a financially viable two-campus hospital without the need for outside funding," he said. "I think (the study) could serve a very useful purpose of shining a spotlight on the reality on today's practice of medicine and the changing world of how health care is delivered and what's going on at the inner-city hospitals that are struggling.

Those struggles include physicians leaving for suburban practices, competition from specialty health care centers catering solely to the insured and the financial hardships associated with serving poor, uninsured patients.

Miller's initiative, House Bill 1678, instructs lawmakers to study whether a government acquisition of Methodist Northlake would improve the hospital's finances, as well as the quality of care available to the community. In addition, lawmakers would evaluate ways to encourage doctors to practice at county and rural hospitals.

HB1678 started out as an effort by state Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, to force specialty health care centers that don't offer emergency room care to drop "hospital" from their names. Brown said he wanted to draw attention to the plight of Methodist Northlake and he is satisfied with the compromise offered by Miller.

The legislation now returns to the House.

This story was first published in the March 27 issue of The Times of Northwest Indiana and is used by permission. c2007 The Times of Northwest Indiana.

Editor's note: The United Methodist-related hospitals in Indiana include: The Methodist Hospital, North Lake Campus at Gary, The Methodist Hospital, Souh Lake Hospital at Merrillville, Parkview Hospital in Fort Wayne and Methodist Hospital (part of Clarian Health) in Indianapolis. All these hospitals are related to the Indiana North and Indiana South Conferences of The United Methodist Church.