Friday, September 18, 2015

EDITORIAL >> North Metro heads south

North Metro Medical Center in Jacksonville is in turmoil after two of its top administrators resigned when its Louisiana owners reinstated a doctor who was believed to be drunk on the job.

State Rep. Joe Farrer (R-Austin) stepped down last week as the struggling hospital’s chief executive officer after he demanded the resignation of Dr. Tracy Phillips for allegedly drinking on the job as well as sexual misconduct.

Phillips initially complied and agreed to resign, but then, according to Farrer, he pleaded with Farrer’s superiors at Allegiance Health Management in Shreveport and was given back his job.

Farrer was fed up, and quit immediately, saying the doctor was likely to harm a patient and, “I could not in good conscience be a party to that. It’s a shame that one doctor could ruin it for everyone.”

Adding to the alarm, the hospital’s head nurse, Deb Bostic, also resigned on principle and criticized Allegiance’s competence. “I don’t believe they have the ethical and moral standards to run this hospital. They do not have the capacity to run a hospital,” she told The Leader.

The community’s faith in North Metro has never been weaker in large part to the bungling executives at Allegiance, who have so far refused to explain why a doctor believed drunk while handling patients was allowed to keep his job.

The problems keep piling up for Allegiance, and it’s not the first time a doctor at North Metro has raised unwanted attention.

Back in April, The Leader’s Rick Kron reported that another North Metro doctor, Jeffrey Summerhill, had been hired despite his problematic past, which included drinking on the job and improperly handling prescription drugs. Summerhill admitted to the state medical board that he had a drug problem after being accused of “being under the influence of alcohol while practicing medicine and he has exhibited excessive and intemperate use of scheduled medication and alcohol, and has endangered the public health, safety and welfare.”

Kron also reported that emergency-room doctors weren’t being paid on time, and the hospital switched its insurance providers without notifying employees, and that North Metro even owed the city more than $20,000 in past-due water bills as recently as last year.

Allegiance executives claimed the hospital’s payroll company was to blame for the late checks, but Allegiance’s top executives run the payroll firm.

Another questionable practice that’s come to light is an insurance company, also controlled by Allegiance, selling health plans to North Metro employees, which may well be a conflict of interest.

An Allegiance hospital in Hattiesburg, Miss., was found to have fraudulently received Medicare reimbursements for services that weren’t needed. A whistleblower is set to receive $3.5 million for tipping off the federal government to that activity.

These are all bad signs that North Metro is rudderless while in Allegiance’s care.

Farrer’s predecessor, Cindy Stafford, was fired soon after Kron’s story last spring. She was a nurse who knew how to manage a hospital. She was always available for interviews and explained in detail how the hospital was beginning to improve. Perhaps Allegiance should reinstate her, but why would she come back?

Allegiance bosses probably thought they could blame Stafford for the problems. If so, they failed. The community knows that Allegiance is ultimately running things at North Metro.

She, too, blasted Allegiance after her dismissal.

Stafford was replaced with Farrer, a key member of the House of Representatives and a physical therapist. It was a savvy promotion that lent North Metro desperately needed credibility.

Farrer thinks the hospital’s problems could force it to close someday. “I took the job of CEO to save the hospital and to help keep 350 people employed,” he told us.

Farrer knew what the public would think if another inebriated doctor was found working at the hospital. What if on-the-job drunkenness harmed patients?

For Allegiance, though, these troubled doctors are probably a bargain and paid less than what their more distinguished colleagues earn in Little Rock at UAMS, Baptist Health or St. Vincent’s, or at Unity Health in Searcy.

For now, North Metro’s chief financial officer, Mike Randle, an accountant who graduated from Grambling State University in 1991, has taken the reins. He hasn’t returned The Leader’s calls to explain his new role or how he can clean up the frat-house atmosphere at the hospital.

Construction on a new medical complex across the street is set to begin within months. That may be too much competition for North Metro. The developer should find a way to include an emergency room if Allegiance fails.

Jacksonville and Cabot city officials and our state legislators should be discussing backup plans if North Metro does close. Its emergency room serves both communities, as well as Little Rock Air Force Base. They should talk to paramedics and emergency responders about what it will be like when they have to drive to St. Vincent’s in Sherwood or Baptist North in North Little Rock. Survival rates will decline, along with both cities’ images.