Tuesday, June 02, 2015

EDITORIAL >> North Metro still struggles

North Metro Medical Center in Jacksonville quietly fired its chief executive officer recently and has not yet announced who will be its next leader.

For now, Joe Farrer, its chief operating officer who is also a Republican state representative from Austin, and chief financial officer Michael Randel have taken over for Cindy Stafford.

The former municipal hospital has struggled for years to compete with better-financed and better-managed competitors in the Little Rock area, where UAMS, St. Vincent’s and Baptist are all regional health-care powerhouses.

About three years ago, the city turned the hospital over to Allegiance Health Management of Shreveport, La., which had some success in starts and fits to rebuild the community’s confidence in the hospital. Stafford frequently explained to The Leader ways in which North Metro was improving thanks in large part to the Affordable Care Act, disparagingly called Obamacare.

On Stafford’s watch, North Metro improved its finances and cut infection rates and patient readmission rates, which were required by the Affordable Care Act. But her bosses in Louisiana have not invested in the hospital as much as the community would have liked. It looks like the only new money the hospital has managed to attract came from the Affordable Care Act, which extended Medicaid to thousands of the state’s working poor.

It’s a program that Rep. Farrer, until this year, has consistently voted against in the legislature and wrongly claimed was too expensive and would only add to the federal debt. He has since done an about face and supports, at least for now, the private option, which is the state’s version of the Medicaid expansion and is funded 100 percent by the federal government.

But government subsidies are keeping North Metro alive. It’s the reason Farrer and dozens of others still have jobs. It’s likely the reason why the hospital was able to pay for a new state-of-the-art wound-treatment facility. (See story, page 8A.)

If Farrer takes over as CEO, he should stop politicizing the Affordable Care Act, like most Republican legislators in the area already have, and explain how North Metro will prosper under it. He might be the only hospital executive in Arkansas, in the country perhaps, who opposes health-care reform.

We have often criticized Farrer’s stance on the Affordable Care Act, noting that his career in physical therapy provides a unique perspective to understand it better than anyone. After all, we’ve never met a Lonoke County rice farmer who is against crop subsidies.

But no matter the differences, Farrer has always kept in touch with us on legislative matters and hospital news. That’s more than can be said for Allegiance’s Louisiana-based chief operating officer Don Cameron, whose secretary offered several excuses to our reporter about why he was unavailable to be interviewed about Stafford’s dismissal. Ten days later, Cameron has still not returned our calls.

There are other problems at the hospital Cameron was perhaps hoping to avoid: Missing health insurance payments for its staff, a doctor who admitted to being drunk while on the job, emergency-room doctors who are owed thousands of dollars in back pay, why the hospital is struggling to pay its water bills and why Cornerstone, an acute-care provider, moved out. Cameron does have his hands full, but the community needs a clear plan that will show Allegiance is capable of rehabilitating North Metro. Maybe it’s time Jacksonville residents accept that the hospital may close someday and that its emergency room, so vital to everyone here, will also be gone