By Deb Murphy
The stress of financial issues at Southern Inyo Hospital was evident at Thursday afternoon’s board meeting, from administrators to staff to community and board members. The hospital is taking steps to resolve a government reimbursement schedule that lags dangerously behind costs and program requirements, including forming a Limited Liability Corporation with Ridgecrest Regional Hospital.
It’s little consolation to anyone that small rural hospitals across the country are going through the same angst.
According to board member Drew Wickman, a total of $77,000 was donated by community members following SIH’s October 27 public meeting. In addition, LeRoy Kritz provided $80,000 as a short-term loan to cover payroll. As of today (Friday), the payment gap to all employees closed to two weeks. There is no lack of support from Southern Inyo, but there is a sense of urgency, according to Supervisor Matt Kingsley.
The most obvious solution presented at the public meeting was some form of partnership with Ridgecrest or Northern Inyo Hospital; both chief executive officers were present last month. SIH’s CEO Lee Barron met with Jim Suver Ridgecrest’s CEO last week, reporting that the LLC will allow SIH to run employee insurance benefits through Ridgecrest Regional. Barron had no information on the benefits or costs to SIH. Additional advantages could include sharing a system for the electronic medical records required by the federal Affordable Care Act as well as exploring the possibility of using Ridgecrest’s license to establish Home Health Care in SIH’s district. “Ridgecrest is also working to facilitate a loan for SIH,” Barron reported.
“Does the LLC save money?” Kingsley asked. “I see the biggest savings potential in personnel costs.” Barron responded that when hospitals cut expenses, reimbursements will be cut. “We need a balance; we’re already under-staffed. We need to look at efficiencies, economies of scale.”
According to Wickman, the hospital is approaching the problem from several angles. “The solution will be a combination,” he said. “The emphasis now is to keep the hospital open; long term, it’s to increase services and efficiencies.”
Wickman reported on activities of an ad hoc committee set up following the October meeting. The committee has divided all the suggestions into short- and long-term fixes. Each would require a specific action plan, he explained. “We’re already moving forward,” he said.
At that point staff and community members stepped up, questioning why action wasn’t taken before the situation “spiraled out of control.” Wickman said he didn’t know it was that bad.