Friday, December 05, 2008

EDITORIAL >>Rescue sought for hospital

Jacksonville can no longer afford to operate its own hospital, which is losing more than $400,000 a month, a staggering amount that includes millions of dollars written off for charity care and equals about a third of North Metro Medical Center’s monthly payroll.

A deep recession, increased competition and falling revenues have pushed North Metro toward the brink. The city-owned hospital can no longer sustain such losses, and it’s hoped a private company might turn North Metro around. As we’ve reported for weeks, the city is negotiating a sale or lease agreement with Allegiance Health Management of Shreveport, La., which plans to turn North Metro into a niche hospital focusing on specialized care while still promising to keep the emergency room open.

The city council Thursday voted to negotiate the best terms for a sale with the for-profit group. If Allegiance succeeds, it will mean continued care for residents who have depended on North Metro and its predecessor, Rebsamen Medical Center, for 50 years to heal their wounds, repair their hearts, deliver their babies and much more.

As a cost-cutting measure, many of those services are no longer available at North Metro — partly because of rising costs, but mostly because of intense competition from nearby hospitals and reduced reimbursements from the federal government and insurance companies — not to mention the thousands of uninsured patients who receive care but have no way of paying their bills.

Unfortunately, a deal with Allegiance is not guaranteed. A tight credit market could end negotiations, or the city might have to sell for a lot less than it has invested in the hospital.

It is surprising, then, that city officials had not prepared for a rainy-day scenario that would have ensured the hospital’s survival with a sales tax that would have raised millions of dollars and kept the facility in local hands.

Jacksonville has funded several projects with sales taxes, including a new library, water park and joint-education center in front of the air base. But we would have thought saving the hospital would have been a top priority for the city, especially since the air base depends on North Metro to provide medical care to its young airmen and their families.

Keeping a well-equipped, modern emergency room in Jacksonville should be viewed as a necessity. North Metro is the first point of service for emergencies from Little Rock Air Force Base but also for vehicle- and other accidents on the Hwy. 67-167 corridor, not to mention injuries, life-threatening allergic reactions and cardiovascular events occurring north of Jacksonville. True emergencies must be kept in mind, coupled with the fact that neither Lonoke County nor Prairie County have hospitals. And in a true emergency, time is of the utmost importance.

Two larger hospitals are just to the south of Jacksonville, but in a true emergency, precious minutes can be lost in transportation and patient outcome can be compromised. A topnotch emergency room, which Allegiance says it is prepared to provide, could stabilize patients before sending them on to larger hospitals for more intensive critical care.

When the board hired North Metro’s current CEO, Scott Landrum, it hoped he would improve the hospital’s bottom line. With Landrum came a new name for the hospital, improved public image and improvements to the facility and services. But it was a case of too little, too late. And the name change led to confusion among some community residents.

When the hospital shut down its obstetrical wing, some saw that as the beginning of the end.

The hospital board feels that part of North Metro’s problem is that residents have a choice of hospitals within a reasonable geographic range. But in an emergency, no one in their right mind would choose to compromise their condition by a long transport.

Landrum is on the right track, but improving one’s image is not accomplished overnight, and more than just image, the hospital must deliver the quality of care the community deserves.

The hospital must be saved.