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Houston County Courier - Local News

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Public Emotions Running High


By Lynda Jones

Shock. Anger. Betrayal. Anxiety. Disbelief. Confusion. All of these feelings continue to characterize public reaction to the June 30 closing of Timberlands Healthcare in Crockett. Following the June 22 announcement that Little River Healthcare would close Timberlands Healthcare eight days later, the Houston County Hospital District met Tuesday, June 27, issued a statement about the closure and opened the floor for questions and comments from an emotional crowd that filled the hospital cafeteria and the hall leading to it. The board was emotional as well. One woman asked if being a Critical Access Hospital was a viable possibility. Timberlands CEO Jeff Perry responded there was a plan to obtain that designation. He said the application was begun before he was hired here in February, but there were issues with the paperwork being filed in a timely manner. The woman asked if the hospital district could run the hospital and apply for the Critical Access Hospital designation, and Perry said that, from his perspective, the cost would be too much for the hospital district. "Little River couldn't afford it," he said. Perry prefaced his remarks with saying he could not speak for the hospital district board of directors. Susan Allee Barrett, a nurse, came with a prepared set of questions for the board. The first pertained to how long the Houston County Hospital District (HCHD) Board of Directors had knowledge of Little River's financial problems. HCHD Board President Deborah Blackwell explained she and HCHD Board Vice President Dr. John Stovall attended a meeting with Little River about three weeks earlier. At that time, Blackwell said, Little River showed them their losses and said they needed to look at cutting some services, such as labor and delivery and elective surgical procedures. "They said if we weren't satisfied with that, they would help us find another operator," Blackwell said. "Well, we were satisfied with that." The next meeting came Wednesday, June 21, she said, and it started out with further discussion of cutting services. However, at the end of the meeting Little River said they would be closing the hospital the following week. Employees were notified the following day. Barrett also asked if the HCHD had been supporting the cost of operating the labor and delivery department, if there the HCHD provided money to supplement salaries. Blackwell responded that no funds were directed from the hospital district specifically to the labor and delivery department. She explained, "They pay us rent of $120,000 per month, and then we turn around and gave them $165,000 to help fund indigent care." Barrett concluded by saying, "Did it not strike any of you as kind of funny that, up until a couple of months ago, Little River was running around frantically buying up doctors' practices and spending money like water through a sieve, and then all of a sudden we don't have any money. Some things just not right. It just smells fishy, and I think this community has been taken for a ride. "I came back to this place two years ago because I was told we were going to make a fresh start, and I was glad. After giving over 20 years of my life to this place, I came back to Crockett to become a nurse here. We thought that we were on the road to recovery and had no indication that this was going on. So you, like us, you had no indication, either. "So, we're left with no hospital and maybe no providers. I think it's just a travesty and it's a sad situation. I'm just wondering if somebody shouldn't talk to the attorney general's office." At that, the audience applauded. Bobby Bowlin, a Houston County resident and president of the Crockett Housing Authority Board of Commissioners, asked, "Are you considering possible investigation of criminal activity?" Blackwell responded, "Right now we're just trying to salvage the hospital." One of the newest HCHD board members, Tommy Driskell, spoke up, "It's a two-pronged deal. I'm speaking for myself, but I have never seen anything so unethical in my 52 years of being in business. I feel we need to sue these people ... The other piece Driskell noted was that Little River has all the provider numbers and the board had only one week to figure it out. Referring to the other board members, Driskell said, "These people here have worked their hearts out the past three or four years... "This is your hospital and we're all in this together...It is a business. You have to make a profit." Former County Judge Erin Ford asked about inventory and securing what belongs to the HCHD. Perry said, "There's actually a very small percentage of equipment that is owned by Little River. We're in the process of (securing what belongs to HCHD)." He added that it's mostly computer equipment that Little River Healthcare owned. Dr. Robert Grier, a board member for almost three years, said he was elected on the board as ETMC was leaving. He proceeded to recap some of the history: "The board at that time had some money. Our object was to maintain a functioning hospital. Almost all the entities, other hospitals and clinics that we spoke with, did not see a functioning hospital in the future of Crockett. They did not want to have this. They were looking for a clinic type of operation, much scaled down, in which Crockett would supply patients to larger hospital units around us.," he explained. "We, the board, in talking with the community were convinced we wanted a hospital. We had approximately $4 million. We went through that pretty quickly. " Grier continued, "We then got a line of credit from a local bank. They were very gracious to us and gave us very good terms. We went through another $3.5 million. "We thought that we were fortunate when Little River came along. We thought that we did our due diligence. It turns out that -- the internet and Google -- perhaps we should have done a little bit more. But we went with Little River." Grier said, "We talked to doctors who had been at Rockdale and their hospital through bankruptcy and they were only in praise of Little River, that they brought them back, patients came back to Rockdale and clinics that Little River owned were functioning very well. "We allowed Little River to come into management in April of last year, and in April we signed a lease, a long-term lease with Little River. It's been approximately a year that LR has managed our facility. They have paid us a total of $600,000 in their rent on our building and we've paid them approximately $825,000 in indigent care payments." Grier noted that Little River brought some doctors here, and he felt the company brought some vitality to the staff. Then he explained the tax rate, saying that when the hospital district was created in the 1990s, the charter was written to include a 15 cents per $100 valuation cap on the HCHD tax rate. "After ETMC came and things were going well, the tax rate was lowered to three cents," he explained. "As we came back to run the hospital, the board increased the tax rate to 15 cents, thinking that that would be a significant amount of money. It's approximately $1.5 million a year," Grier said. "The payroll is substantial at the current staffing that we have ... the $1.5 million would last about two or three months." Grier commented on the HCHD's tax rate as it compares to other districts. "If you look across the State of Texas to the hospital districts that are running a hospital, we are about the lowest. There are 136 hospitals. We rank No. 89 and most of those below us do not have a hospital. They are just a hospital district like Grapeland," he said. "The No. 1 hospital in Texas has a tax rate of 76 cents. That would give us a chunk of money. Do you want to pay 76 cents taxation for this hospital?" Grier said he has reached out to six different healthcare entities and is awaiting their responses.


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