County hospitals in need of financial infusion

Published 11:18 am Monday, June 10, 2024

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Escambia County’s healthcare facilities are in need of a financial infusion citing losses month after month in providing healthcare services to area residents, according to officials.
Members of the Escambia County Healthcare Authority (ECHCA) — overseers of D.W. McMillan Hospital and Atmore Community Hospital — approached members of the Escambia County Commission last week to present the information that paints a grim picture for the future of healthcare in the county.
On hand for the discussion was D.W. McMillan Administrator Stacy Hines and Atmore Community Hospital Administrator Brad Lowery, along with members of the board for the ECHCA.
Wess Nall, who serves at the chief financial officer for the ECHCA, said that both hospitals were operating in the red with no relief in sight.
“The status of healthcare and hospitals is as bad as I’ve ever seen,” Nall said. “We are operating in negative margins at both hospitals and continue to have very significant, high losses.”
Those losses have put the hospitals at a $3.56 million dollar loss so far this year and Nall said that loss is growing month over month.
“These losses are specific to our hospitals, but all across the state,” Nall said. “There have been 12 hospitals to close since 2011. We see 88 percent of hospitals in the state operating at a negative. We aren’t alone.”
Lowery said the approach to the commission wasn’t to ask for money.
“This isn’t us asking for help, but we are brainstorming for ideas,” Lowery said. “Our surgery department was phased out on Friday (May 31). We were tracking about 300 surgeries with an $800,000 to $900,000 loss. We want to provide baseline care and still offer as much care as we can in our community. We are consolidating where we can to make it as efficient as possible to cut costs while still providing as many services as possible. We are coming to you to make you aware of the state that we’re in. It is dire. It is severe everywhere.”
Hines echoed Lowery’s concerns noting that hospital officials have taken every opportunity to evaluate how the facility runs.
“We’ve successfully been able to meet the needs of patients with quality care,” Hines said. “But, we’ve had to adapt. The way we are reimbursed (from insurance/Medicare, etc.) has changed. We are applying for grants and want to grow what we can do to provide access to medical care in Escambia County. I am thankful I don’t have to drive two hours away for care.”
Debbie Rowell, chair for ECHCA, told commissioners that the group was seeking help from all possible sources.
“We are looking for ways to improve our financial situation,” Rowell said. “We are looking for grants, USDA assistance or any suggestions anyone may have. Maybe something like an increase in property or ad valorem or put a hospital tax in place. In my work in real estate, I’ve seen other areas that have those taxes.”
Commission Chairman Raymond Wiggins told the group that the county is not in a financial position to offer a cash gift to the authority.
“We are sympathetic and please know we want to do what we can to help,” Wiggins said. “But, we don’t have any money to give right now.”
Wiggins said that the commission doesn’t have the authority to impose a new tax without legislation and a vote by county residents.
“Even if we wanted to add a new tax, it would take a long time to see any funds from that,” Wiggins said. “There is the time to get legislative approval, putting it on the ballot and then you’re looking at a year to collect those taxes before we could pay that out. That would span about a two to three-year process.”
Alabama Sen. Greg Albritton was also on hand for the discussion last week and said this news isn’t new information to him.
“We are caught in a spiral,” Albritton said. “Until we have the means to provide services, we will continue to be in that spiral. The resources the state has cannot keep up with the demand. We will be suffering for a while. I don’t have any answers. I’ve tried to find a path to stop the drain on rural health care.”
The losses at D.W. McMillan Hospital in Brewton are larger than losses in Atmore, but all losses will continue until an infusion of finances is found for the countywide healthcare system, officials said.
In Brewton, Hines said their hospital provides as many as 170 surgeries per month and continues to provide services that other hospitals in the region no longer provide.
“Brewton’s issues are among the largest in Alabama,” Hines said. “Our OB (obstetrics) services are extremely costly. We are one of only two hospitals in the region that continue to offer those services (Grove Hill is the other hospital). Our oncology infusions are still done in Brewton and it is costly.”
Although no solutions were found during the discussion last week, Albritton did say that officials at USA Medical Center in Mobile are reaching out to assist where they can.
“USA has moved outside their realm to help rural hospitals,” Albritton said. “They are using their resources to help find grants and other sources of revenues.”
Other noted issues adding to the loss of funds is the reduced reimbursements from Medicare, Medicaid, insurance providers like Blue Cross/Blue Shield and others.