“This is an important step in the ongoing conversation about how we deliver and pay for care in our state and across the country, and how we can purchase the most health at the least cost,” said South Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Director Tony Keck.

The four full-service hospitals in Richland and Lexington counties made nearly $180 million in profits in 2012, but only $8 million of that came directly from service to patients in the hospitals.

Those are some of the interesting statistics that can be gleaned from a new health-care data website launched this week by the South Carolina Department of Health and Human Services. The easy-to-use website – schealthdata.org – is filled with data that already was available for those who knew where to look and had the time to wade through spreadsheets. The state agency now has made it easy to find and understand.

For now, it’s mostly the type of financial and operational information important to policymakers and business officials. The more consumer-oriented information such as the costs of various procedures at each hospital will be in the next wave of data added to the website, likely in two or three months, according to the state agency.

Keck said the information on the website should help legislators make decisions on health regulations and initiatives. For instance, the state changed reimbursement rates for some procedures at the state’s rural hospitals after reviewing the profit-loss data for those facilities.

The state’s hospitals back the effort. They already were compiling the information for Medicare and Medicaid reports or federal tax filings.

“Our state’s hospital leaders believe that South Carolinians should have the information they need to understand the health-care system and to make better decisions concerning their own health care,” said Thornton Kirby, president and CEO of the S.C. Hospital Association. “However, hospital costs make up only about one-third of total health-care costs. Therefore, tracking similar cost data on other segments of the health-care industry in South Carolina would provide a more complete understanding.”

Like any statistics, the information on the website is illuminating only if you know how to interpret it.

For instance, all four of the Richland and Lexington county hospitals reported large profits in 2012 -- $38.8 million for Lexington Medical Center, $54.9 million for Palmetto Health Baptist, $65.5 million for Palmetto Health Richland and $21.7 million for Providence Hospitals.

But much of that profit wasn’t derived from what most people consider the major role of hospitals – patient services. Most hospitals are big businesses that diversify. They own physician practices and invest in the stock market. The overall profit for the state’s hospitals in 2012 probably had a lot to do with a strong stock market, Keck said.

As for the local hospitals, only two of the four showed a profit strictly from patient services in 2012, according to the website. (Since they are nonprofits, it’s technically revenue over costs, not profit.) Lexington made $15.3 million and Baptist made $20.8 million. Meanwhile, Richland showed a $17.1 million loss, and Providence a $10.7 million loss.

One of the important stats for hospitals is occupancy rate. For the Midlands hospitals, Richland had the highest (77.71 percent) followed by Lexington (75.79), Baptist (66.3) and Providence (44.6). Statewide, occupancy rates ranged from 7 percent (Allendale County Hospital) to 83.5 percent (Spartanburg Regional).

Also, 53 percent of the “occupied bed days” statewide were covered by Medicare and 17 percent by Medicaid. That means those two government programs account for more than two-thirds of the inpatient hospital stays in the state.

The website currently has five years' worth of data, which means trends can be identified. More than half of the hospitals reported lower occupancy in 2012 than in 2011, which Keck attributed in part to the rise in outpatient procedures.

©2014 The State (Columbia, S.C.)