Thursday, November 01, 2018

Startup that bought shuttered rural Virginia hospital stalls project amid reports of financial problems

UPDATE, Feb. 2: "The Lee County Hospital Authority this week selected Ballad Health as its new partner to reopen" the hospital, Luanne Rife of The Roanoke Times reports. "Ballad has agreed to pay $1.7 million to remove the debt on the building incurred by the county’s former partner, Americore, and over time will pay $1.5 million to Lee County taxpayers who bought the building after it was closed by Wellmont Health System. Wellmont and Mountain States Health Alliance last February merged to form Ballad Health. In approving the merger, Virginia’s health commissioner required Ballad to provide essential medical services in Lee County if the county was unable to reopen the hospital."

Rural hospital closures have spiked in the past decade; 89 have closed since January 2010 and only eight have reopened. This story out of rural Virginia illustrates the kind of effort it takes and hurdles rural communities can face when trying to reopen a hospital.

The story comes from Lee County, population 24,000, at the state's western tip and one of Virginia's poorest counties. Its only hospital abruptly shuttered in 2013, and the nearest one is 40 miles away in Tennessee. Some residents are more than an hour from a hospital. Local officials say the closure has strained emergency services and the local economy. "Some are convinced people have died because of a lack of access to care," Sarah Rankin reports for The Associated Press.

Community leaders have been fighting to reopen the facility ever since: they bought the building, looked for new owners, and formed a hospital authority, which took special approval from the state legislature. Then the authority had to get a certificate from the state to operate the hospital. They paid for basic maintenance on things like the grounds and the boiler system too, Rankin reports.

In 2016, Florida-based startup Americore Health, which had little experience with hospitals, approached Lee County leaders about buying the hospital, and in August of 2017 the hospital's governing board approved the sale. Americore has invested about $5 million into the facility and plans to spend another $2 million, Americore CEO Grant White told Rankin.

But work on the hospital seemed to halt in mid-August this year. Around that time, "authority members also started seeing news reports about problems at the company's other hospitals, including unpaid tax bills, payroll snags, layoffs and disputes with lenders," Rankin reports. The authority recently gave Americore two weeks to show evidence that the project was viable and sustainable, and will likely determine next Thursday whether the company can reopen the hospital and consider its next steps, according to hospital authority attorney Jeff Mitchell.

White told Rankin he thinks Americore can fulfill its commitment and reopen the hospital as a 25-bed acute care hospital by Dec. 31, as promised.

No comments: