By Deb Murphy
More than a month ago, Southern Inyo residents donated the funds to keep their hospital afloat when it was learned the $13,000 necessary for licensing Southern Inyo Hospital wasn’t in the checking account.
At Thursday night’s standing-room-only special board meeting, they stepped up again following the closure of the Emergency Room for lack of payment to the contract physicians. This time, the community demanded action, forcing the issue of a meeting between no more than two SIH board members, community members and representatives from Ridgecrest Regional Hospital’s board and administration.
Mike Patterson from Sierra Lifeflight and fire chiefs from Olancha, Lone Pine and Independence were at the meeting to assure residents emergency transportation would still be available.
In what he described as a short-term fix, Patterson said a crew would be based in Lone Pine. The air ambulance would remain in Bishop, but on alert to head south if the need arose. The arrangement is on a day-to-day basis, but Patterson said the company was “here to help.”
Speaking for the other chiefs, Lone Pine’s LeRoy Kritz said all the ambulance providers would continue to “answer 911 calls and get you somewhere.” One of the issues facing local fire districts is the absence of the more extensively-trained paramedics. The districts’ EMTs can only provide specific procedures, none of which include “piercing the skin.”
Following a Monday evening board meeting, Chief Executive/Financial Officer Lee Barron filed the necessary documents with the state, notification that the Skilled Nursing Facility and Emergency Room would close. The closures can be rescinded, but without ER doctors, the Skilled Nursing Facility and the Rural Health Clinic cannot legally operate.
The hospital only had enough funds to either pay the employees, who will still be four weeks in arrears or the $65,000 payment to Coast to Coast Healthcare Services. The board voted to pay the employees; Barron was still scrambling Tuesday to get enough money to keep the ER doctors on board but could not meet the December 2 deadline.
Inyo County Sheriff Bill Lutze said he “got the call there was no ER at 7:30 Wednesday morning” and expressed concern that some residents would drive themselves to the hospital and realize there was no ER. The sheriff’s office will send a Code Red alert to district residents and mount a social media blitz to keep locals aware of the situation.
The hospital has been working with Ridgecrest and CEO Jim Suver on a Limited Liability Corporation that would allow the public SIH and private Ridgecrest facility to work on joint efforts including sharing a Home Health Care license, coding and electronic medical record software, expanded outpatient radiology, a clinic doctor and employee insurance benefits. But employees and the community have lost patience with the lack of a timeline.
At SIH’s November 19 board meeting, Fifth District Supervisor Matt Kingsley broached the idea of co-management between the two facilities as a way to save money immediately. Barron explained hospitals had allowable expenses and a drop in overhead could result in a drop in state and federal reimbursements. Kingsley and Lone Pine resident Jaque Hickman had the answer: transfer the cost of management to health care services.
Hickman wanted transparency in the hospital’s efforts. “We don’t want one sentence answers,” she said. “We want full disclosure.”
Kingsley and Hickman came to the meeting with copies of a proposed agenda for that meeting between SIH and Ridgecrest, starting with a co-management agreement for ancillary services and the clinic as well as stepping up efforts on coding issues (required by the Affordable Care Act) and collections. The Brown Act came up, but board member Drew Wickman explained that two board members could discuss district business without violating the Act.
Lone Pine Chamber Director Kathleen New pushed the point, asking specifically if the board would act quickly to set up that meeting. Wickman agreed.
Thursday’s two-hour meeting exposed the serious financial and morale issues SIH faces. November collections totaled $405,000 with $2.2 million still in accounts receivable. As of October, accounts payable totaled $2.5 million. Billing denials from Healthcare Resource Group have clogged reimbursements; Barron said “a lot has been resolved.” Property and parcel tax payments will be disbursed by the County sometime this month or in January. Employees are not notified when they’re not being paid; complaints have been filed with the labor board.
The meeting opened with a report on the closed session. Wickman will protect the interests of the hospital. When asked, no explanation was given as to what exactly that meant. Later in the meeting, Wickman asked that when the hospital starts interviewing candidates for the administrative assistant position they treat the opening as an administrative, rather than secretarial, position and seek out someone with a strong background.