Most people don't think about a hospital until they need it, noted Dr. Robert Bean, President and CEO of Sumner Regional Medical Center (SRMC). He is hoping people are thinking about it now.
On April 3, Wellington voters will have plenty to decide upon. One item on the ballot centers on the 126,000 square-foot facility, located at 1323 N. A Street - SRMC.
On Feb. 21, the Wellington City Council voted to put a half-cent sales tax increase on the ballot, the tax would specifically fund the hospital. Beginning July 1, for 18 months, the half-cent would run along side an existing quarter-cent sales tax, already slated for SRMC, that will sunset in Dec. 2013. The City Council also wanted to look at a "Plan B" incase the half-cent sales-tax is voted down.
"This is 'Plan B,' that's what I want people to understand," Bean said. "We [the current administration] came in here in 2003. And in 2003, the hospital was near closure." There were no cash reserves, payroll was a challenge to meet, vendor payments had been dodged, and equipment was outdated and breaking down.
"So we decided to implement 'Plan A,' which was to run the hospital efficiently," Bean said. Hospital staff was reduced, the wage scale was restructured, equipment upgraded, and revenue streams increased and added. "We ended up having the five best years in the 100-year history of the organization [from 2004 to 2008]." The high point was in 2006 when the hospital was nearly $800,000 in the black.
The five best years in the hospitals history were followed by some of the worst. SRMC felt the crunch of the faltering economy in 2009. The low point was in 2010 when the hospital fell about $1.5 million in the red. The recession was in full swing.
"And that hit us basically in the fourth quarter of 2009, and what we saw then was a dramatic decrease in our in-patient volume, as much as 40 percent," Bean said. National healthcare changes, with drastic cuts to Medicaid and Medicare funding have also been contributers to SRMC's issues, along with the increase of demands for data reporting, which ups the need for staffing and costs.
"So they're paying us less, and expecting more and more," Bean said. Last year, the hospital was still in the red, but seen a significant, $1.3 million reduction of loss.
"Our response to that  was to give staff pay-cuts, and reduce benefits, and not replace staff that left," Bean explained. "And I think, even though we're still in the red in 2011, our department managers probably did the best job of managing a hospital that I've ever seen." Other issues the hospital has been managing stem from Medicare and Medicaid.
"For years and years, Medicaid and Medicare have paid less than the cost of providing the service," Bean elaborated. "How it works is commercial insurance has always paid more, so you've made up the difference, or made a profit from what the commercial insurance folks paid you." He says now SRMC no longer has enough patients using commercial insurance to make up the difference.
Page 2 of 4 - "All that's created a situation where 'Plan A' isn't enough anymore," Bean said. "You can only squeeze those efficiencies so far." Officials are hoping that added support from the proposed half-cent sales-tax, that would sunset after three years, will positively impact the hospital.
"This sales-tax is only for 3 or 4 percent of the entire budget of the SRMC," said Wellington City Manager, Gus Collins. "They're basically self-supporting." The half-cent sales-tax is projected to bring in $550,000 per year.
That number is based off of the $275,000 a year the quarter-cent tax as garnered thus far. For 18-months, SRMC would essentially be receiving a three-quarter-cent sales-tax. If the half-cent sales-tax passes, the two taxes together would make $1,237,500 in that 18-month span. After that, the half-cent sales tax would make approximately another $825,000. All of this just from Wellington. In late February, the Sumner County Commissioners allocated $120,000 to SRMC for three years. That's $2.4 million in total approximate aid, so what will all this money be going towards?
SRMC has complied a list of financial needs, as recently as Feb. 17, totaling over $3 million. The biggest number on the list is $1.2 million in unreimbursed care, bad debt, and charity. Other financial needs range from staffing, equipment, and other facility needs like repairing the rest of the building's roof.
Throwing $2.4 million at a $3 million dollar hole might not look like much of a fix. But keep in mind, the hospital was just under $200,000 in the red in 2011. Also keep in mind a lot of that $2.4 million is riding on the half-cent sales tax coming through. Which leads back to the 'Plan B' discussion, and asking "what if?"
Should the hospital eventually not exist, the alternative might end up costing a pretty penny also. The City of Wellington has been crunching the numbers based on the amount of current ambulance runs from Wellington to Wichita.
"It is a very significant cost in capital and personnel," Collins said. "We show a 1.5 million dollars in initial start-up, just to fund additional personnel and more ambulances." The costs would continue to add up.
"Then we have annual costs after that," he explained. "Because then we'll have to replace equipment...instead of every 8 to ten years, to probably every 3 years." Funding for all of this would have to be figured out.
"Our rates today do not cover the entire cost to provide a transport," Collins added. "But we're subsidized through property taxes and we also get funding from the County, depending on the location of the call." But for now the hospital doors are still open, and on Thursday, March 29, SRMC is taking advantage of that.
From 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. the hospital is hosting an open house for all community members to attend. Bean hopes the people see what there is to invest in.
Page 3 of 4 - "The open house is for the community to come in and see what they have," he said. "To ask questions, and get to know the people that work here and spend their lives here and provide the care for the community." It's definitely a critical time for health care in Wellington and Sumner County. Officials are aware that there are two sides to the coin.
"If the sales tax doesn't pass...we'll work to extend the inevitable [closing the hospital]," Bean said. "Continue to drain our cash reserves, delay improvements to the facility and equipment till the point they become unreliable..." On March 20, Wellington City Council members urged citizens to get out and vote during the April 3 election. Support for the hospital was strong.
"We've been watching the hospital for a couple of years, struggling, and doing better," said Council Member, Larry Shimer. "I think they've done a good job, I think it's money well spent. I think it would be an awful, awful thing to have the hospital not to get funded. If we lose the hospital, the ramifications are absolutely terrible." The City Manager pointed out that having a hospital in a community is attractive for people looking to relocate.
"This hospital needs to remain in order for us to be competitive in trying to get some folks interested in coming to this community," Collins said. City and hospital officials were at the Memorial Auditorium on Monday, March 26 for an informational meeting, regarding SRMC, the sale-tax, and the future.
Nearly 100 citizens of Wellington attended the Monday night meeting. Bean displayed some photos of different infastructural needs that SRMC needs to address, along with what the hospital has already done to help keep the facility up to date, and competitive.
Collins spoke to the crowd after Bean, and went over some of the numbers on a per-household basis. One way he simplifed the cost of the sales-tax was breaking it down to a per-month amount. For the first 18 months, the tax would cost around $16 per month, per Wellington household. After that, the cost would go down to just over $10 perhousehold, or the price of one pizza, per month, per household.
Right now, total sales tax in Wellington is 8.05 percent. If the sales tax increase is passed, the total would be at 8.55 percent, just like it was for the funding of the Sumner County jail. "If" is the key word in all of this.
"Either way if it does pass, or if it doesn't pass, we've got to look at 'Plan C,'" Bean said. "This community needs to decide, how important is a hospital? And what if any roll does the hospital have in the community."
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