Doctors want a say in hospital’s future

Published 11:51 pm Saturday, June 19, 2010

Staff Writer

Beaufort County’s doctors want an active role in the discussion over the future of Beaufort County Medical Center, members of the board that oversees the hospital’s operations were told Thursday.
In response, they were encouraged by members of the Beaufort Regional Health System Board of Commissioners to do more to help the medical center, formerly Beaufort County Hospital, weather its current financial crisis.
Some 40 doctors, other medical professionals and eight members of the hospital board attended the meeting, called at the request of the hospital’s Department of Medicine to give doctors the chance to ask questions of the medical center’s leaders.
In an interview afterward, psychiatrist Thomas Penders, the hospital’s chief of staff, said it was “an excellent first step” and praised “the courage of the board in opening this dialogue” with the hospital’s medical staff.
That medical staff was told it will be “part of the solution to whatever challenges lie head of us,” by hospital board member Alice Mills Sadler.
“We’re committed to seeing you and this hospital succeed,” she said.
During the nearly two-hour meeting, hospital consultant John A. Schrull of High Point painted a dire picture of the hospital’s finances, reviewed the hospital board’s response to those financial numbers and, along with Penders, led a question-and-answer session about the hospital’s future.
After recording a profit of almost $600,000 in 2008, Beaufort Regional Health System suffered an economic downturn in 2009, recording an operating loss of about $1.5 million and a decline of net assets at the end of the year of about $1.3 million, according to a recent financial statement.
The hospital is “on pace to lose more money than that this year,” Schrull said. “It’s not a pretty picture. It’s a reality and it’s playing out in small hospitals all across the country.”
“I have never seen a recession hit health care as hard as this one has,” said Schrull, who has more than 30 years’ experience in the health-care industry.
In response, the hospital board in recent months implemented what Schrull described as a “dual-track strategy.”
Track 1 includes a plan to increase patient volume at the hospital, enhance revenues and reduce costs and short-term borrowing. Track 2 includes the possible merger of the hospital with a larger health-care provider, Schrull told the doctors. 
“We’re looking at everything we can so that the hospital can survive, so that you will have options,” Schrull said.
As part of its second track, the hospital board has contracted with HealthCare Appraisers Inc. of Florida to conduct a search for possible merger partners. As of Thursday, 10 systems — including nonprofit systems University Health Systems of Eastern Carolina and New Hanover Health Network — have expressed interest in receiving more information from the local hospital about a possible merger.
Ultimately, any decision to merge the hospital will need the approval of the hospital’s governing body and the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners.
Oncologist Jennie Crews said she felt pressured to support one track or the other before she and other doctors had all the necessary information about such a merger.
Crews said it was “unrealistic” to ask the doctors to wholeheartedly support a merger without discussing the benefits and disadvantages of such a merger. Although Crews had heard a lot about the benefits of merging the hospital with another health-care entity, the doctor said she “had questions about how secure some of those benefits would be.” She asked Schrull to identify the disadvantages of merger.
“The downside is control,” Schrull said. “The higher the level of financial support you need, the more control the party who is providing that support is going to want.”
He encouraged those involved to carefully evaluate any merger proposal so that “for any level of resources you get, you retain the most control that you can.”
Pediatrician Rachel McCarter, who serves as the hospital’s vice chief of staff, asked the hospital board to involve the medical staff in evaluating the proposals it receives.
While merger proposals could be received by the hospital board in two to three months, completing a merger could take as long as 18 months, Schrull said.
“You’ve got to be able to stay financially viable during that process,” he said.
Hood Richardson, a Beaufort County commissioner who also serves on the hospital board, challenged the doctors to help the hospital improve its revenue while it waits for merger proposals.
It is important for the medical community to work to improve the hospital’s finances, not just by cutting costs but by increasing revenue, he said.
“Cuts are not going to save the hospital,” he said. “The bigger part of that is to get the volume up. You’re going to have to get us more patients.”
He also said the doctors need to work to be more efficient in their practices.
Penders said he hoped Thursday’s meeting will be part of an ongoing discussion between the hospital board and the medical staff.