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Oil Boom in Dakota: Corporate economy flourishes; injured workers and medical community suffer

This week from North Dakota John Eligon reported in a national newspaper that the oil boom that has transformed North Dakota's economy hasn't been so positive for everyone.  Eligon interviewed administrators and a physician from the Watford City area and McKenzie County Hospital.  He noted that along with the economic boom in the oil patch, there has been a 59 percent increase in ambulance calls and a corresponding increase in ER visits. Unfortunately, many of the serious injuries have involved uninsured workers and created a huge uncollectible debt to the medical treaters.  So, while corporations derive substantial profit from the new drilling activities, in their wake they leave a detritus of maimed workers and enormous, unpaid medical billings.

The local Emergency Department in Watford has added a second room, but it is difficult to recruit permanent physicians.  Instead the Hospital relies upon weekly temps (called locum tenens).  Nurses aren't available in adequate numbers out on the rural prairie where recruiting even fast-food employees means a $20.00 per hour wage.  With a 200 percent increase in oil patch injuries since 2007, the 12 medical facilities in western North Dakota have experienced a debt increase of 46 percent treating injured workers to whom they legally cannot deny care. 

Nine of the hospitals operate at a loss and the current "boom" is simply not sustainable for the hospitals or the communities they serve.  One community is considering a one cent sales tax, pondering whether it can use the regressive sales tax on local residents (mostly blue collar) to cover the medical expenses incurred treating injured and maimed oil patch workers--many of whom are not local residents.  Focusing solely on  the mantra "jobs, jobs, jobs" without giving throughtful consideration to corresponding problems, is also not sustainable.

Thompson O’Neil, P.C.
309 East Front Street
Traverse City, Michigan 49684
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