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Sanpete County and local health service agencies are organizing a task force that will help alleviate the financial plight of the county's two hospitals.

The Sanpete Valley Hospital in Mt. Pleasant is continuing to operate in the red and its survival is uncertain, George Winn, the hospital's administrator, said.Mark Stoddard, administrator of the Gunnison Valley Hospital, said that hospital is now operating in the black after several years of operating in debt.

"The entire hospital community has rallied around us," Stoddard said. "But we need to do still more to ensure our future," he added.

The precarious situation of the Gunnison and North Sanpete institutions is not peculiar to them, but typical of most rural hospitals in the United States, Stoddard and Winn said.

"Hundreds of small rural hospitals have closed in the past few years," Winn said.

The problem is mainly financial, Winn and Stoddard said. And they put much of the blame on federal reimbursement programs - mainly Medicaid - which require the hospitals to provide a wide range of services below their cost. "The public needs to be informed as to our financial situation," Winn said.

That will be one assignment of the task force. It will have others, too: evaluation of the rural hospital's role in the community, recommendations on ways to cope with the financial squeeze and getting the people involved through action programs.

"It's urgent," Winn said.

Sanpete County Commissioner Robert Bessey, whose assignment includes public health, will be a member of the task force. The six other members will represent various groups throughout the county. "We hope to have the task force organized in a two-week period," Bessey said. "We want to get the people involved."

Commissioner Leonard Blackham said that public health is a major county responsibility.

"Our hospitals are a vital part of our infrastructure," he commented, "as vital to our well-being as roads, law enforcement and other services, and they play an important role in the county's economy," Blackham added.

Their payrolls are significant. And one of the telling inquiries we get from firms considering a move to our county is the quality of health care available. "Some of Utah's small hospitals have already gone under," Bessey said. "We cannot allow that to happen here."