St. Agnes and the regulators Free day for mothers: Doing the right thing can be good for business and for regulators.

February 18, 1996

ST. AGNES HOSPITAL, long known for going the extra mile for patients, found itself a winner of a marketing ploy -- a second day free for new mothers whose insurance might turn them out after 24 hours. Considering the black eye insurers are giving themselves on this issue, a hospital willing to take a hit on its bottom line to give minimally decent care to mothers and infants may end up attracting more revenue in new patients than it loses in offering the free day.

Unfortunately, the offer has attracted the ire of state regulators -- the same folks who have done an admirable job of keeping the growth in hospital costs far below that of other states.

Let's be clear: Maryland's hospital rate regulations have worked well -- and this is a system we should treasure, not casually ignore.

But it's hard to see why hospitals facing fierce market pressures should be denied their version of the loss-leaders common in other businesses -- provided they can demonstrate it will not burden other patients. St. Agnes insists it will absorb these costs. Unless regulators definitively prove otherwise, they should give the hospital the benefit of the doubt. If, after a trial period, there is evidence the cost of the free day is being shifted to other patients, then the regulators can act.

St. Agnes' move is good business and good health care. The trend toward drive-through deliveries, which can put the health of both mother and infant at risk, is a sign that the emphasis on cost and accountability can reach extremes. Deaths may be rare, but what about other issues -- jaundice or problems with breastfeeding? Giving mothers and babies the support they need in those early days can mean lower medical expenses down the road.

And why does hospitalization for new mothers have to be a heavy expense? Hospitals have perfected systems of intensive care to handle patients when normal nursing care is not enough. Why can't they set up a separate, lower level of care for new mothers whose main needs may be rest, recuperation and a little advice? St. Agnes' plan may be an ideal way to pioneer a solution to a troubling trend.

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