Leader Blues

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

TOP STORY >>If hospital is built, will they come?

By GARRICK FELDMAN
Leader editor

When Rebsamen Medical Center in Jacksonville reported an $803,000 loss this year, the hospital dipped into its reserves, but administrators and hospital board members don’t want to keep doing that for very long. “We can’t lose money forever,” said Mike Wilson, a hospital board member and former state representative from Jacksonville. “You’re getting into the corn seed now.” “We’ve got a lot of soul-searching to do to keep it operating,” Wilson said.

Central Arkansas has 17 hospitals with more than 5,500 beds and more than three dozen nursing homes with 5,000 additional beds. Several specialty clinics — including radiation therapy and heart and outpatient surgery — complement the mix. Since 1999, Rebsamen has faced tough competition from two modern hospitals just a few miles down the freeway from Jacksonville. St. Vincent Medical Center North on Wildwood off Hwy. 67/167 in Sherwood and Bapist Health Medical Center on Spring Hill Drive off McCain Boulevard near Highway 67/167 in North Little Rock.

Both are modern facilities, while sections of Rebsamen are 45 years old. The Sherwood hospital on Wildwood Avenue, which cost $30 million to build, has 140 beds and is just five miles from Rebsamen, while Baptist, located off McCain Boulevard and which cost $50 million, is eight miles away. Baptist has 175 beds, including a 30-bed inpatient rehabilitation unit and boasts of services usually found only in larger, metropolitan facilities, such as diagnostic, surgical, outpatient, laser, pain management, critical care and emergency services.

Rebsamen is the smaller of the three hospitals with 90 beds, of which 60 are usually occupied. But it had more than 21,000 emergency-room visitors this year, or about 58 a day, although Rebsamen’s limit is 20,000 emergency-room visitors a year.
St. Vincent and Baptist are close enough for area patients to drive to for their healthcare needs, except in emergencies, which is why Rebsamen’s emergency room is overloaded. Rebsamen not only competes with these two recently built nearby hospitals that boast up-to-date equipment, they also offer doctors lucrative contracts. Many of those doctors have practiced at Rebsamen, but perform surgeries elsewhere, often at satellite clinics with specialties that pay them better.

Although it is city-owned, Rebsamen has been operated by an outside management firm, Quorum Health Services of Plano, Texas. Rebsamen, with 500 employees, is the second largest employer in the area after Little Rock Air Force Base.
Rebsamen’s board is considering the idea of building a new hospital on the edge of north Pulaski County to attract more patients from Lonoke County, which doesn’t have a hospital. Further north in Searcy, White County Medical Center draws patients from both White and Lonoke counties to its 300 beds. A new hospital closer to Lonoke County might bring in patients from there as well as from southern White County, before they head to Sherwood or North Little Rock. Will a new facility in north Pulaski County also attract more patients and specialists? “That’s the $64 question,” said board member Wilson. “I don’t know the answer to that,” said Mack McAlister, an accountant and chairman of the hospital board of directors.

He said the board’s task is to evaluate Rebsamen’s future and decide its role in the community. “We have a facility that’s several years old. What do we need to do in the future to be up-to-date? What do we need to do to be financially sound?”
Health care has changed, with more regulators requirements and reduced payments from Medicare and Medicaid. McAlister says Rebsamen can still find a role to meet the community’s healthcare needs.

“Health care has changed, with clinics and surgery centers. What we’re trying to do is address the subject of how we can be more efficient and beneficial.” “You have to find your niche,” he continued. “You can’t just compete with someone who’s doing the same thing down the road.”