Healthy Hospital Essential To Community

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by Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

For more than a year now the Swift County-Benson Hospital’s (SCBH) Governing Board and CEO Kurt Waldbillig have been steadily moving toward a plan that would significantly turn around the financial position of the hospital. It would not only reverse the losses of the past two years, but put the hospital on track to becoming financially strong within three years.

That financial strength will be essential to ensuring the hospital can modernize its care in coming years as well as weather the ever-changing medical reimbursement systems it must rely on form both the federal government’s Medicare and Medicaid systems, as well as private medical insurance providers.

This year, SCBH is projecting a loss of about $865,00. That loss comes on top of a $901,000 in 2015 and an $865,000 loss in 2014. Those losses are eating away at what was once a healthy reserve fund and are not sustainable. Doing nothing is not an option, Waldbillig has told Swift County’s Board of Commissioners and the Benson City Council.

The hospital’s plan involves construction of a $12.445 million assisted living/memory care facility on land south of Scofield Place yet this fall. It would like to also start work on a $5.75 million construction project that would change the current layout of hospital’s buildings.

That change involves tearing down the current inpatient wing of the hospital and moving it along with emergency care to the west end of the hospital close to the surgical center.
SCBH would like to start work this fall on construction of the new memory care/assisted living facility. It is the core part of the project that the hospital sees as turning around its financial fortunes. Current financial projections show the project netting SCBH nearly $1 million by 2019 and $1.2 million in the years that follow once the facility is up and operating at near full capacity.

The assisted living/memory care facility will provide a much-needed service to the community, allowing the families that have leave town to find places for their loved ones the opportunity to bring them home.

For this phase of the project to proceed on the schedule the financial options are limited. Because of the losses the past two years, no financial institution is going to extend the credit needed for construction. So SCBH is exploring other options. One is using Scofield Place’s 501c3 corporate status to apply for the financing. Scofield Place’s board is in the process of transferring the senior living facility to the hospital at no cost. It has the financial history and income strength to potentially lead in seeking funding for the assisted living/memory care facility.

However, SCBH may also seek financial backing from Swift County and the City of Benson for the sale of general obligation bonds. The taxpayers of the county and city would back those bonds.  Commissioners and council members are wary of stepping in without having a higher level of comfort with the project that is being proposed.

There were a few missteps by SCBH in the past few months as it developed its plan. It appeared that the governing board was developing its plan behind closed doors. At a late April meeting, the governing board voted to go into closed session to discuss the project, but the reason for closing it was not explained by the board nor was the reason listed on the agenda – both of which are required by law. That gave the perception that something that should be discussed openly was being hidden. When challenged on closing the meeting, the board explained that it needed to discuss “marketing strategy.”

After the meeting, Waldbillig made of point of contacting the Monitor-News, as well as county and city officials, to explain that the reason for the closed meeting was to talk about issues involved with a deal that was being worked out between the hospital and Affiliated Community Medical Centers (ACMC) as it moved toward another essential key to turning around the hospital’s finances.

Through the deal, ACMC’s Benson clinic will become a Rural Health Clinic operated by the hospital as a department of a SCBH, and be under the hospital governing board’s control. The hospital sees this an essential change that will begin to ensure it has greater input in medical records, the recruitment of medical providers and the use of its ancilliary services.

We recognize that SCBH was dealing numerous sensitive topics, some of which qualified to be discussed in closed sessions. We also know that many volunteer public bodies don’t have a complete undersanding of the state’s open meeting law and can make honest mistakes in complying with it. SCBH has been making a considerable effort in recent weeks to ensure that both the city and county fully understand the scope of the project it is understaking.

Moving forward with the assited living/memory care facilty construction is essential to not only the health of the hospital, but to the health of the community as well.

A sound hosptial is required for the economic health of the entire area. There are businesses that will not come to Benson if it lacks a hospital; there are businesses for which making the decision to leave the community will be easier if it can point to the loss of medical care.

Further, for the stability of the current medical staff and for the recruitment of new medical providers, the hospital, backed by the city and county, has to show that it is moving forward with fundamental changes that will turn around its financial condition.

SCBH is “bleeding” patients. Area residents are traveling to Morris, Glenwood, Alexandria and other community medical clinics and hospitals in significant numbers. Appleton’s clinic is looking to open a satellite office in Benson. All see the vulnerability of hospital today.

Many who are leaving have sought alternatives to seeking care at Benson’s ACMC because of a lack of doctors.

We strongly believe that a plan has been developed by SCBH over the past year that will move it toward financial health. The sooner that plan is implemented, the sooner the losses stop and the sooner local efforts at recruiting new physicians have a chance of succeeding. Delays in moving forward will only lengthen the time of recovery.

We recognize there is a risk to the taxpayers, but getting our hospital back on sound financial ground requires taking that risk.

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