Hospital Inks Deal on Program Ahead of County Funding

WINNSBORO (March 11, 2016) – County Council is once again faced with a funding dilemma at Fairfield Memorial Hospital, one totaling nearly a half million dollars and one that would require Council to officially amend its 2015-2016 budget.

During their Feb. 15 meeting, Council unanimously passed first reading on an ordinance to adjust their budget in order to meet the hospital’s request for a total of $451,773.46. Interim County Administrator Milton Pope told Council after the vote that the request covered two items on tap at the hospital. Fairfield Memorial is seeking $305,523.46 to pay off outstanding maintenance contract costs for their CT scan and MRI machines, as well as $146,250 to implement the new WellnessWorks program.

Council is scheduled to meet again Monday; however, it was not known at press time if a second reading of the ordinance would appear on the agenda. Phone calls to Council Chairwoman Carolyn Robinson (District 2) were not returned to The Voice before going to press.

Yet, while some Council members expressed concern over potentially throwing good money after bad, hospital CEO Suzanne Doscher classified the requests as a priority. Indeed, Doscher told The Voice this week that Fairfield Memorial has already signed a contract to administer the WellnessWorks program – a program that interfaces with local businesses and industry to provide preventive healthcare to employers – and is laying the groundwork for implementation in advance of funding approval.

“We are doing everything we can to implement the program this week,” Doscher said. “Our intention is to sign up employers this week. We haven’t started the program, but we are laying the foundation. We have signed the contract.”

The $146,250 the hospital is seeking from the County, Doscher said, will cover Fairfield Memorial’s monthly payments on the program for a year. Council has held several closed-door meetings with the hospital’s board of directors since Feb. 15, and the ordinance to amend the budget to dish out more cash to the hospital will require two more readings and a public hearing.

“The contract with WellnessWorks is ongoing. There is a monthly payment to stay in the program,” Doscher said. “We don’t want the financial challenges of the hospital to be a detriment to employers’ healthcare.”

Doscher said she did not have an answer to what Plan B would be, should Council decline the hospital’s funding request.

“Plan A is not even a plan if you implement that (WellnessWorks) without the funding to operate it,” Vice Chairman Kamau Marcharia (District 4) said. “We are all concerned about this. We’ve had conversations with the hospital and we laid out what we needed to move forward and I don’t think those things have been laid out yet so that we can make a decision.”

Marcharia said Council was still seeking some basic financial information from the hospital, specifically how the hospital plans to address some of its outstanding bills and a plan to get on firmer fiscal ground in the future.

“We want to see the hospital here in the future,” Marcharia said. “We don’t want to lose it. But if it continues where the County has to fund everything, I don’t know if that can continue.”

The lion’s share of Fairfield Memorial’s most recent request – the $305,523.46 to catch up on maintenance for the CT scan and MRI machines – is also a high priority, Doscher said.

Both machines are old, and Doscher said that if the hospital had the financial ability to do so, it would replace them outright. But without that kind of monetary flexibility, the best that can be hoped for is extending their lives a little longer.

“We’ve had some problems with equipment failures with those two pieces of equipment,” she said. “To keep those two pieces of equipment running, a service agreement is essential, and we do not have one.”

The prior service agreement, in fact, lapsed after the hospital could not keep current on its payments.

“Because of our financial situation, we could not pay the previous agreement,” Doscher said; and in order to restart that service, she said, “We would have to pay the back payments.”

Doscher said that to the best of her knowledge, Fairfield Memorial’s CT and MRI machines were the only two such imaging machines in the county, making them even more vital to Fairfield County healthcare.

District 7 Councilman Billy Smith said he did not know when Council would take up second reading of the ordinance, but added that his support for the funding was contingent on a sound financial plan.

“For me to vote to provide the funding that the hospital has requested – anything I vote for will have to be preceded by a long-term plan to make the hospital stable in the future,” Smith said. “We need the hospital there. It’s good for the healthcare of the county, it’s good for economic development; but we don’t need to keep throwing money down a hole with no bottom to it.”

The closed-door sessions between Council and the hospital board have generated a number of rumblings throughout the county about the future of Fairfield Memorial. While Smith and Marcharia both said they were bound by non-disclosure agreements on many of the details of those secret conversations, Marcharia did say that just about every option for stabilizing the hospital was on the board’s table.

Doscher, meanwhile, addressed some of the more prevalent leaks circulating about the hospital’s future.

No decision had been made by the board, she said, on any type of bankruptcy filing or debt restructuring. The board has also not approved any type of merger with a larger hospital. And finally, she said, the hospital has not been sold to another facility.

“If the hospital can secure a buyer that agrees to maintain a level of healthcare based upon the board’s definition of healthcare,” Doscher added, “then they would sell.”

With the WellnessWorks program already on the move and a pair of aging imaging machines barely chugging along, Council will have to make some hard choices, and make them sooner than later.

“We all want to keep the hospital open. We need it there,” Smith said, “but at the same time the citizens need to know what goes into that. We don’t want to go broke, and we don’t want the hospital to close, and we certainly don’t want to do both.”