Looming sequester creates uncertainty at local level

The leaders of many federally funded organizations in the area are on edge as they anticipate budget cuts that could kick in if the federal government sequester rears its ugly head on Friday.The White House issued a report this week sounding the alarm that the state of Wyoming will lose some of its federal funding for schools, Head Start programs, environmental protection programs, military readiness programs, law enforcement grants, job assistance, child care subsidies, vaccinations for children, public health services, senior citizen nutrition programs and more.Medicare reimbursementAccording to North Big Horn Hospital CEO Rick Schroeder, the hospital is expected to receive 2 percent less in Medicare reimbursements within three days of the sequester going into effect.Fifty percent of the hospital’s business is Medicare and, for the most part, services to Medicare patients are already reimbursed at a fraction of other payers.“We see it as a social responsibility to accept Medicare patients and I never see us even thinking about cutting coverage to Medicare patients,” said Schroeder.Schroeder explained that due to the hospital’s “critical access” designation, the hospital receives an additional 1 percent from Medicare, which helps pay for new equipment like the recently purchased ambulance, CT scanner and Glidescope.The mill levy the hospital receives from the community also helps to keep the hospital afloat, along with insurance reimbursements and private payments.“We really appreciate that the community votes to support us through the mill levy whenever it comes up for vote,” said Schroeder. “We depend on that income to stay current.”The 2 percent decrease in Medicare payments represents approximately $70,000 per year in lost revenue to the hospital. Schroeder said patients will receive the same services, but the hospital will get paid less for those services.“I want to emphasize that if the sequester happens, Medicare recipients will not receive a reduction in services of any kind,” explained Schroeder. “Their ability to obtain and receive services will not be compromised in any way. The hospital will take the loss, not the patient.”Schroeder said the hospital will continue its efforts to be as cost-effective as possible.“We always try to save whenever we can but we never want to sacrifice being effective at the cost of being efficient,” said Schroeder.Park Service“We remain hopeful that Congress is able to avoid these cuts,” said Bighorn Canyon NRA Superintendent Jerry Case in a prepared statement released this week. “The National Park Service, like every government agency, has been asked to prepare plans in the event that the sequester happens.  I can confirm, on background, that the impacts outlined in the retirees’ release include potential consequences of the sequester. The planning process is ongoing and the information contained in the retirees’ release should not be considered final.”The National Park Service, which is funded by the federal government released the following statement:“The public should be prepared for reduced hours and services provided by National Park Service employees at 398 national parks, historic sites, monuments and memorials, parkways, trails, preserves and reserves, seashores and lakeshores, recreation areas and national battlefields.“Visitors would see reduced hours of operation for visitor centers, shorter seasons and possibly closing of camping, hiking and other recreational areas when there is insufficient staff to ensure the protection of visitors, employees and historic, cultural and natural resources.“The reductions would limit the National Park Service’s ability to sustain a full complement of seasonal employees needed for interpretive programs, maintenance, law enforcement and other visitor services as we are preparing for the busy summer season.”According to the NPS, approximately 280 million people visit national parks each year. The dollars spent by those visitors support 247,000 jobs with an estimated $31 billion economic impact, mostly in local economies.Senior Nutrition ProgramNorth Big Horn Senior Center Director Denise Andersen said that although the meals program is funded in part by the federal government, she does not expect the sequester to affect the center’s meal program.“Everything we do here has a little bit of federal oversight,” explained Andersen. “The federal funding isn’t expected to run the whole program. We are expected to also come up with a certain amount of state and community funding. It’s not a stand-alone program.”Andersen said approximately 60 percent of the center’s operating budget is dependent on a combination of state and federal funds. The program will stand to lose approximately $16,000 per year due to an 8.2 percent reduction in the portion of its funding that comes from the federal government.“We’re in a better place than many other senior centers across the state,” said Andersen. “We’ve always faced the possibility of the federal government pulling out from under us, but I believe that if it is right it will work out and this is a right service and it will continue because it is the right thing to do. We have fantastic support from the community, not only on our meals program but on every other program we are offering.”Andersen noted that the center is also a senior district and receives funds directly from the community in the form of a mill levy.“It’s discouraging to know that on the national level we may be taking these hits, but the encouraging part for us is that we had the foresight 13 years ago to establish a senior district and because of that, for the near future anyway, most seniors will not see any change in services.”School FundingBig Horn County School District No. 2 Supt. Dan Coe said he didn’t expect his school district would see any immediate impact on federally funded programs. He said federal programs, like Title I, might be affected down the road but the federal government has not stated that yet. As far as the immediate future is concerned, he said he wasn’t anticipating any immediate effect on education in Wyoming.By Patti Carpenter