Tuesday, September 03, 2013

EDITORIAL >> Hospital is hurting

North Metro Medical Center in Jacksonville, formerly Rebsamen Regional Medical Center, is struggling to stay open after more than 50 years of healing the sick.

The hospital has been about $300,000 behind in its electric bills and $80,000 in its water bills, but is working out a payment plan with the utilities.

As Leader reporter Rick Kron revealed Saturday, the 75-bed acute-care hospital, which Allegiance Health Management bought from the city for about $10 million in April 2012 after managing it for three years, is in financial straits. Competition from nearby hospitals, especially St. Vincent in Sherwood and Baptist Health in North Little Rock, have hurt North Metro, which hasn’t been the first choice for physicians or patients for many years.

The old-time physicians who practiced in Jacksonville — Dr. James Durham, Dr. Albert Johnson, Dr. Thomas Wortham and many others — would never have imagined that this once-great hospital, which opened in 1962, would fall on hard times.

One of our longtime readers wrote to us, “The problem with the hospital is that local doctors do not refer their patients to North Metro. Our hospital has very good patient care, very good customer service and capable of doing tests that our community’s residents need. If the patients would tell their doctors they want to go to North Metro, it would let the doctors know to refer you.”

The hospital has been on a losing track for almost a decade. The last time North Metro made money was in 2003-04, when it ended the fiscal year on June 30, 2004 with a $652,000 positive income. That didn’t last long.

The next year, net income slipped to a $98,000 loss. In 2005-06, losses totaled $804,000, and then jumped to $3 million in 2006-07. The 2007-08 fiscal year closed out with a net negative income of $2.38 million.

Many of the uninsured who use the emergency room have stiffed the hospital for millions of dollars, while Medicare and Medicaid payments have continued to fall. Obamacare might help North Metro recoup those losses from the uninsured who would qualify under the Medicaid expansion that will cover some 250,000 poor Arkansans. But that might be too little, too late for our hospital.

Three years ago, Mayor Gary Fletcher, a member of the hospital board, said, “It is important that we keep the hospital open, especially for the air base since they’ve closed their hospital.”

If the hospital closed down for even a day, it could lose its certificate of need, which it has been working under since its inception. If it loses that certification, it would be tough for the facility to reacquire it because of all the stringent new hospital requirements.

It’s a sad story that’s repeated across the state and the nation almost every week: Community hospitals shut down for lack of patients and funding as better financed hospitals invest in new equipment and better-trained personnel.

Mike Wilson, also a member of the hospital board, told us, “Allegiance needs to put some money into the hospital to make a go of it.” But a company that can’t keep the air conditioning going won’t have the resources to spend $20 million on state-of-the-art equipment. Here’s hoping they keep the lights on at least until a new buyer is found. This community deserves its own hospital. All the great physicians who’ve been affiliated with North Metro worked too hard and for too long for it to disappear after all these years.