Yakima Valley Hearing & Speech Center in financial crisis

Yakima Valley Hearing & Speech Center in financial crisis »Play Video
YAKIMA, Wash. -- A local speech and hearing center is facing a financial crisis, one that could put its future in jeopardy. It already has had to turn away patients who need help. KIMA learned what's behind it.

The Yakima Valley Hearing & Speech Center serves thousands of patients from Cle Elum to Prosser, but lower Medicaid payments have the center struggling. Its patient load is already down 1,000 from two years ago, most of them children.

Erin Hansen has been bringing her son, Ridge, to the Yakima Valley Hearing & Speech Center since he was six months old. An intestinal infection left him profoundly deaf.

Three years later, Ridge is like any other little boy: smiling, playing and communicating.

"We work with wonderful teachers of the deaf who have provided us with amazing access to language for Ridge," said Erin.

One of those teachers is Nancy Frame. She founded the facility more than 40 years ago.

"It just means everything to me," she said.

But, severe cuts in Medicaid reimbursements have left the center's budget in tatters.

"We're down to bare bones," said Frame.

It's the largest hearing and speech center in the Northwest. The facility averages more than 3,000 patients a year. Roughly three-quarters of them have state-subsidized health care. Most are children.

The lower reimbursements have forced the center to cut expenses, hold off on buying new equipment and turn patients away.

Nancy Leahy is the center's executive director.

"We're losing a very important freedom, and that's the ability to speak clearly, to speak with intelligibility," she said.

Employees have appealed to state lawmakers. They've gone to Olympia three times and written dozens of letters, all of it to try to come up with ways to prevent the doors from closing.

"I'm old; I have been here a long time," said Frame. "But, I cannot stand to see what I've worked so hard for – we all have, all these years – come to a close."

It hasn't come to that point, but Erin worries about having nowhere else to turn.

"If this center isn't available, I don't know where we would go," she said. "I don't know what we would do."

A concern these hearing and speech therapists hope will make lawmakers sit up and listen.

The center's executive director told me there are no plans to shut down. Managers are working on alternatives. Ideas include a partnership with an existing medical facility and asking lawmakers for a waiver of more reimbursement cuts in the future.