Friday, October 16, 2015

EDITORIAL >> Plan to save North Metro

Rock Bordelon, chief executive officer of Allegiance Health Management, claims he and his company are the saviors of North Metro Medical Center in Jacksonville. But it looks more like a bull turned loose in a fine china shop to deal with a mouse problem.

By all accounts, Bordelon is a nice guy to hang out with, have a drink with, even go hunting with, but not one to have running a hospital. Bordelon is said to be in Canada this weekend filming for his hunting show. Maybe he’s also studying that country’s single-payer health insurance program, which might make it easier for North Metro to survive and cover its employees, who have been without health insurance off-and-on for months.

The latest fiasco came earlier this week when dozens of North Metro employees received letters that said they were no longer insured because the hospital didn’t pay its premium.

The hospital’s top administrators are Bordelon and two other owners of their Shreveport, La.-based the management firm.

This group has a bad habit of taking money out of paychecks and not sending it where it needs to go, such as to insurance and taxes.

This is now the second time the Department of Labor has gotten involved over insurance payments, and then there’s the $250,000 owed the state in unpaid taxes and more than $1 million owed to the federal government — all money apparently pulled from people’s checks. And don’t forget the more than a dozen shut-off notices from the city water utility for nonpayment.

The city, which was quick to dump the hospital about nine years ago, needs to start looking for a real white knight and so does First Arkansas Bank and Trust, which holds a multi-million loan on the hospital.

The staff at the hospital works hard to provide high-quality care, but it’s difficult to go in every day not knowing if they will have insurance or what management may not pay next. You don’t want the lights turned off in the middle of surgery.

The hospital must stay open, but under new management.

Maybe the voters will approve a one-cent sales tax as several cities around the state have done to keep their hospitals open.

Paul Cunningham, senior vice president of the Arkansas Hospital Association, recently told Arkansas Medical News that 22 communities in the state have voted over the years to provide local tax support for their hospitals.

Cunningham said, “There are a couple of exceptions where property taxes are used to subsidize the hospital, but typically they are funded through sales taxes. Most of these hospitals have common characteristics of being small and rural, usually under 100 beds and possibly, in most cases, even under 50 beds.”

In addition to improving the health and well-being of the communities they serve, Cunningham said local hospitals contribute to their area’s economic health.

“Hospital payroll expenditures serve as an important economic stimulus, creating and supporting jobs throughout the local and state economies,” Cunningham said.

Earlier this year, voters in Crittenden County approved a one-cent sales tax after the hospital in West Memphis declared bankruptcy when it was revealed that it had pocketed workers’ insurance premiums instead of paying them to insurance companies — which is what North Metro has been accused of doing. Shutting down Crittenden Regional Hospital, even for a few months, hurt the east Arkansas community and could have been avoided if voters had approved a sales tax much earlier.

If North Metro closes, the cost of bringing the facility up to code would be astronomical. Right now, as a continuing entity, it can be behind the times in its electrical, plumbing, heating, air and insulation requirements. But, if it closes, it would reopen as a new facility and everything would have to be 2015, not 1970-ish.

This is not something city officials, legislators, businesses or bankers can just sit idly by and watch. The slow destruction of our hospital is unnecessary and dangerous to a community that is trying to get out in front with its own school district.

Don’t forget that the air base generates more than $900 million for the local economy and it does rely on our hospital. Name another city with that kind of income that has a dying hospital, or worse, no medical facility at all.

The mayor’s talk of an $18 million medical complex is wonderful, but, until contracts are signed and ground is broken, it’s just a dream. Maybe that developer’s money should be spent buying back the hospital — the city does have first rights to buy it back — and make it the cornerstone of a new medical complex.

The point is everyone must figure out how to save North Metro, even if it involves a tax hike.