First, the good news: Erlanger Health System has adequate reserves on hand to pay its debts, and there is no reason to think it will stop providing the sound care for which it is known throughout our region.
Now, the bad news: Erlanger has had more than $17 million in losses in just the first nine months of the current fiscal year -- including a dramatic $4.1 million loss in March alone.
Count the reasons:
• Doctors have moved revenue-generating surgeries to different hospitals.
• Layoffs that will improve Erlanger's finances to the tune of millions of dollars nonetheless came with a $900,000 bill for one-time severance pay.
• Admissions were down in March.
• And Erlanger has seen a sharp increase in uncompensated care. That care amounted to a hefty $83 million in the previous fiscal year, but it is expected to surpass the $91 million mark this fiscal year.
Not surprisingly, these alarming numbers and circumstances have Erlanger earnestly seeking ways to stem its losses. We hope those efforts succeed, and soon.
But the rise in uncompensated care is perhaps the most telling of all the things that are causing financial troubles for the hospital. It is, in fact, a symbol of what ails medical care in the United States as a whole.
We do not suggest that hospitals should turn away patients in dire medical need on account of their inability to pay.
But the compassionate instinct to care for the ill or injured, no matter their economic circumstances, does not erase one key fact: Medical care costs money, and there is no wishing those costs away.
Uninsured patients of limited means who seek care at a hospital emergency room may think they are getting "free" care.
But doctors, nurses, medicines, high-tech facilities and the myriad other things that go into providing patient care are anything but free. Somebody has to pay the tab, sooner or later, or else the care won't be available.
That's scarcely different, of course, from what plagues medical care across our nation. Everybody wants whatever care he desires, at the time he desires it, and without regard to the cost of research and development of drugs and medical devices or the cost of the extensive education required of medical professionals.
That unsustainable notion is embodied in ObamaCare -- which the U.S. Supreme Court should promptly strike down as unconstitutional. ObamaCare seeks to bring tens of millions of Americans onto government-run medical care, while promising that somehow this mammoth expansion of government actually will reduce health care costs.
In short, it purports to offer something for little or nothing -- which falls under the category of "If it sounds too good to be true, it is."
But as Erlanger's painful example shows, making medical care "free" to one group of people simply places those costs on another group.
Again, that is not to suggest that seriously ill people who cannot afford medical care should be left to suffer. But at least Erlanger -- unlike the Democrats who passed ObamaCare -- is honestly confronting the reality that benefits have costs.
Similar candor about ObamaCare likely would have prevented it from passing in the first place.
But a clear-eyed accounting of its costs and rigorous consideration of its potential unintended consequences were the last things on the minds of those who promoted that federal power grab.
Barring the overturning of the law by the Supreme Court, our nation probably is going to be living with those consequences for a long time.