Kingdom residents say dialysis center needed in region

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(Host) Some Northeast Kingdom residents hope the Legislature will help pay for a kidney dialysis center in their region. They say there’s a critical need for this life-saving medical technology in the state’s most rural and isolated area.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) About 25 people in the Newport area spend a lot of time commuting just to stay alive. Wallace Willis is 75, and a former utility worker and milk truck driver. But now that his kidneys have failed, he needs his blood cleaned through dialysis machines. He gets the treatment three days a week at the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. It’s a 226 mile round trip each time.

(Willis) “And it’s $91.36 a trip. And if it was here, I wouldn’t need any help.”

(Dillon) Between the four hours of treatment and the lengthy drive, Willis says he doesn’t have time for much else.

(Willis) “I could do something for myself if I was here. But you spend nine to 10 hours on the road and you don’t get very far when you get home. It’s dark.”

(Dillon) The North Country Hospital in Newport has tried to get a dialysis center for several years. Doctor Ron Holland has led the effort. The center isn’t cheap; one study found that a six-unit facility would cost about $1.1 million.

But Holland says there’s also the expense, physically and financially, to the patients who have to commute to Burlington or Hanover for their care.

(Holland) “Some younger patients are able to work, most of the older patients that I’ve talked to, their life is focused right around dialysis. It’s controlled by the dialysis.”

(Dillon) A state study on the need for dialysis found that the Newport area is underserved. The community is fundraising, but Holland also hopes the Legislature will help.

(Holland) “I think the Legislature should be involved for the following reasoning. The impetus for this facility is to establish equitable access, to achieve a justice standard for the state of Vermont. And corporate health care doesn’t naturally pursue justice. It pursues revenues. So the Legislature should step up and say, for this particular problem, we’re taking the initiative and we need this facility.”

(Dillon) One complicating factor is competition between hospitals in Newport and St. Johnsbury for the treatment center. Proponents of the Newport alternative say that patients in St. Johnsbury have a much shorter trip to a dialysis facility in nearby Lancaster, New Hampshire.

There’s also the question of scarce state dollars. But Wallace Willis, the Newport patient, says if the state can spend millions of dollars to clean up Lake Champlain, it should be able to afford something for the Northeast Kingdom’s dialysis patients.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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