CRUNCH TIME: Hospitals brace for universal healthcare

TRI-CITIES, Wash. -- The start of universal healthcare means our hospitals scrambling to handle tons of new patients.

You never know when it could be you: one day you're happy and healthy... the next, you're jobless and sick.

"When I thought I got into construction, I thought I was set."

Dean James is caught in a catch-22. When the economy hit the skids, the lifelong construction worker lost his job and his insurance. He also found out he had a chronic injury. It prevents him from getting a new construction job. Until he gets a simple surgery, he can't work. And he can't pay for that surgery because he doesn't have insurance.

"Most of the time I don't see a doctor because I know how much the bill will be. I just go to the store and deal with it," Dean tells KEPR.

Dean's luck could soon change. Starting in January, 20,000 uninsured people in the Tri-Cities will be eligible for medical coverage. Our local hospitals could see an influx of patients.

Kadlec started preparing for the change two years ago. Since then, it's hired dozens of new employees -- as well as open its freestanding ER. Overall growth is the biggest reason for the expansion in the Tri-Cities, but workers say the new healthcare law definitely caused them to hire more employees.

Across town, KGH also hired several more doctors. Its new hospital was long-planned before the healthcare overhaul.

At the same time, there's also been changes at Lourdes. Ten new doctors were hired to accommodate possible new patients. Workers are also expanding a section of the hospital to handle more patients.

"It's all part of providing to a community that everyone is part of"

And that means better times could soon be on the way for anyone needing medical help... Including Dean.

"I try to look at the good part of everything."

Uninsured people can start signing up for universal healthcare in October.

Currently, more than 35,000 people do not have insurance in the Tri-Cities.