Tuesday, September 17, 2013

EDITORIAL >> Stand by our hospital

It’s quite likely that many of us who live here have never been a patient at North Metro Medical Center, and unless things begin to change, and change rather quickly, many more will never be cared for in what was once a star in Jacksonville’s firmament.

We cannot fault the present owners, Allegiance Health Management, for the sins of the past. The finger should also be pointed at Jacksonville, owner of the hospital before Allegiance, a Shreveport, La., outfit with 42 facilities took over in 2009.

North Metro, being in a low-income community, was and remains at risk for nonpayment on a large scale. We cannot lay all the blame at Allegiance’s feet. North Metro had already lost status in the eyes of the community and with it much respect by the time Allegiance arrived with promises to save the day.

Health-insurance industry and government-reimbursement programs specify how much will be paid for diagnostic services and procedures. Those payments now arrive later, not sooner, and hospital emergency rooms have become veritable sitting ducks for those with- out insurance.

The new insurance regulations about to come into play should be good news for a facility like North Metro, which could at last collect for much of the care it now delivers and is never properly reimbursed for. We don’t know how much North Metro has out in collections, but we imagine it is more than substantial.

Jacksonville’s city fathers saw this coming a long time ago when, after closing the 2004 fiscal year with a healthy balance of $652,000, they were suddenly faced with a $98,000 loss the following year. In 2005-06, losses came to $804,000 and plummeted to an astounding $3 million loss for 2007-08. The 2007-08 fiscal year closed with a negative income of $2.38 million, a slight improvement, but not much of a selling point. Who was watching the store?

Mayor Gary Fletcher recently remarked that the military sees health care as critical when bases come under BRAC review for closure. Officials continually point out that Little Rock Air Force Base needs a nearby hospital since the base hospital was closed. Nearby St. Vincent Medical Center North and Baptist Medical Center-Springhill stand ready to fill the gap, but in an emergency, proximity to medical care and emergency services is all important.

The hospital must be preserved as the important part of this community’s persona that it is. Loss of the hospital would be a sign of serious decline on top of struggling schools and businesses closing.

Allegiance says it is committed to the community and to North Metro and sees the potential for a successful facility, pointing out the many improvements it has already made here. Many of those improvements, such as the new outpatient surgery unit, the hospital’s relationship with UAMS and innovative wound care, were pointed out in earlier stories in The Leader.

North Metro is the first line of defense for emergencies arriving from points north and east since there is no hospital in Lonoke County and none south of Searcy in White County.

There is also some talk, possibly only a pipe dream, of a collaborative effort between Cabot and Jacksonville to locate the hospital nearer to the Lonoke County line. A brand-spanking new hospital! What a nice idea.

Ambulance transports from serious vehicle accidents, serious cardiovascular events or gunshot or other wounds often end up at North Metro first for emergency stabilization before transport to the trauma center at UAMS or another facility.

Allegiance has beefed up many of its services from emergency to rehabilitation to psychiatric and wound care, and much more is planned.

Allegiance perhaps saw itself as coming to the rescue. Is it still possible? Community support is essential but Allegiance must keep up appearances — shortages of essential items, broken equipment and unpaid bills bode ill for Jacksonville and the larger community.

Allegiance emphasizes its committment to Jacksonville, but it must step up to the plate and perhaps dip further into its pockets to deliver care in the kind of physical environment that patients deserve. First impressions are important and word spreads when patients, staff and visitors notice problems.

The hospital’s interim chief executive officer Cindy Stafford began her career as a registered respiratory therapist and later moved into administration. Perhaps there’s no one who knows the inner workings of a hospital better than those who have delivered care themselves. They know the inside story, and we think Ms. Stafford does, too. Throw her your support.

And that goes for you, too, Allegiance.