By Blake Spires
With Westlake Regional Hospital’s ongoing financial crisis and attempted remedy by the current administration, many have wondered what might occur in this county if Westlake were to close its doors. To find answers to this possibility, which has been quietly suggested by some in the community, one may look to Oneida, Tenn.—a town in Scott County with nearly identical population and income numbers as Columbia whose hospital closed for more than a year before reopening last December.
Scott County Mayor Jeff Tibbals agreed to be interviewed Tuesday about the similar situation his town shared with Columbia, and offered candid opinions on what does and doesn’t work in small-town hospital management, as well as the effect Scott County hospital’s closing had on its community.
“The first thing you have to do is get the politicians out of it and bring in someone that knows how to manage hospitals,” Tibbals shared. “That was a problem here several years ago, and so we brought in a non-political management group.”
Adair County Judge-Executive Ann Melton neither refuted nor agreed with Tibbals assertion, but explained that she doesn’t see politics playing a role in Westlake’s operation.
“There are no politics involved in our hospital,” Melton said. “The very first thing we did when we accepted that the hospital was in as bad of shape as it was was to bring in a management company.”
Since then, Melton says, she has remained involved in monitoring and supporting Westlake, but has left ultimately all aspects of its management to the board.
“I actually was not even allowed to attend the meetings when they were trying to sell the hospital,” she explained. “I was not involved in any of that decision making.”
“Even now,” she continued, “I attend the meetings but there’s no politics in telling them what to do at all. The magistrates and myself still call and discuss things with the board—we even told them we thought Mr. Gold’s salary was too high for this community, but those decisions are ultimately up to them.”
Judge Melton and the magistrates that make up the Fiscal Court appoint the members of the Hospital Board, but she stressed that their involvement stops there.
“There are reasons you can dismiss board members,” Melton explained. “Disagreeing with a decision they make is not one of those reasons.”
The hospital in Oneida, formerly known as St. Mary’s, closed its doors in May 2012. Two years prior, St. Mary’s had notified county officials that it would be pulling out of its lease with the hospital, and the county soon found that future leasers refused to take on the lease and be saddled with the approximately $4.7 million in fees garnered under St. Mary’s.
“When it came down to it, no other operator wanted to take on that responsibility,” Mayor Tibbals said. “We could hardly give the place away.”
With no one to take the lease, and a proposed 37-cent property tax increase to pay for the hospital rejected by citizens, St. Mary’s closed down, sending the 210 employees and associates into the job market and rendering Oneida’s closest hospital roughly 40 miles away.
“The biggest thing was not having a nearby hospital,” Tibbals explained. “We were basically putting doctors [via phone or radio consultation] in the ambulances and our EMT’s were saving the lives of our citizens.”
After the hospital closed, average ambulance run times ballooned to almost three hours, and the 31 EMS workers totaled nearly 450 hours of overtime every two weeks.
“We were running the tires off our ambulances,” Tibbals said.
The ambulances were not the only vehicles forced to increase their travel schedule, as each of the hospital’s former employees scrambled to find jobs, many of whom added more than an hour to their commute. Additionally, local industry suffered under the impact of those workers either remaining unemployed or taking their paychecks to surrounding areas.
“I even had an owner of a tanning bed business tell me they lost half their business when the hospital closed,” Tibbals said. “All the people who would go tan on their lunch break or after work were going elsewhere, and we felt that influence throughout the rest of our service industry as well.”
Thankfully for Oneida and Scott County, the hospital re-opened its doors in December 2013 after being closed for almost 18 months.
“People trusted that we were going to get it back,” the mayor said of the community’s reaction to the hospital’s return.
Tibbals says the hospital, which is now known as Pioneer Community Hospital and employs approximately 100 people, was a vital addition for both the economy and well being of the community.
“One of the big things we push is bringing people back here to retire,” he said. “You can’t do that without a hospital. People, especially the elderly, need the assurance of available healthcare.”
Judge Melton said that since politics are a non-factor and a competent board is in place, she is focused on saving the hospital in order to not only protect the current residents of Adair County, but to benefit future residents with increased industry and economic support.
“Of course the first thing is saving lives,” Melton said. “I have the hospital keep me informed on how many lives have been saved, that might not have made it if they had to be taken to Russell or Taylor County, and in the past year and a half, there have been five or six people saved. Even one loss of life is too many, and you can’t put a price on that.”
“The biggest thing someone wants to know is how is your healthcare?” Melton continued, outlining the criteria for both business and residential moves to a community, “You can’t expect someone to move to a place, or send their child to college in a place, or start a business in a place without a hospital.”
In the wake of drastic personnel cuts and layoffs over the past few years at Westlake, Melton maintains that the current 150 or so jobs provided by the hospital would be a blow Adair County could hardly sustain if the institution closed.
“Those folks have mortgages, car payments, and families to support,” Judge Melton said. “The investment we’ve made into the hospital is an investment into those jobs and into the community.”
“Every community deserves to have healthcare,” she continued. “It would be devastating to lose our hospital. In my opinion, it would set us back 50 years.”