Steven Webb knows that turning around the former North Metro Medical Center in Jacksonville is going to be a challenge, but the Unity Health president and CEO is up for it.
Unity Health of Searcy has already turned around a hospital in Newport that it acquired in 2015, and has navigated the pandemic without laying off or furloughing any of its 2,300 employees.
Last month, Unity bought the Jacksonville hospital and several properties for $7.75 million from Allegiance Health Management Inc. of Shreveport, which had closed the hospital in 2019.
Webb said Unity would ask the Arkansas Department of Health to relicense it, and Unity will start an $8 million renovation project that includes expanding the emergency department. The renovation will feature 14 exam rooms and four triage rapid treatment rooms, Webb said. In addition, there will be about 10 acute observation beds next to the ER.
Unity also will add an MRI. “We’ll be able to do full imaging with CT, MRI, mammography, ultrasound and X-ray,” Webb said. “We’ll have a lab service there to support the community and to support the emergency department.”
Webb said psychiatric services will also be added. “Psych is an area that Unity Health has done really well in,” he said. “We have five psych units across our three locations now.”
Along with the hospitals in Newport and Searcy, Unity Health has more than 20 physician clinics and specialty centers across eight Arkansas counties.
Webb hopes to open the Jacksonville hospital before summer 2022. Taggart Architects of North Little Rock is on board, but no contractor has been hired.
Allegiance began operating North Metro in 2009 but closed it 10 years later after struggling, leaving Jacksonville without a hospital. North Metro had net patient revenue of $18.2 million and a net loss of $9.2 million for the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2018. For the fiscal year that ended in 2017, North Metro had a net loss of $5.3 million.
In the summer of 2020, an Allegiance representative called Unity to see if there was interest in working with the city of Jacksonville to reopen the hospital.
“We thought that may be a good fit for us,” Webb said. “After a lot of vetting and due diligence, we think that there’s an opportunity for us to provide excellent patient care and to be able to have a positive cash flow that we can reinvest back into that facility and community.”
Unity has had experience turning around hospitals. In 2015, Unity Health acquired Harris Hospital in Newport, which was in financial trouble. “We were able to make some changes in the way that we operate that facility and take it from an operational loss to being profitable,” said Webb, who became head of Unity Health in 2018. The hospital is now called Unity Health Harris Medical Center.
Unity has also navigated the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic. During the early stages of COVID-19, Unity Health, like nearly all other health care providers, saw its patient volume drop during the state-imposed pandemic lockdown.
“Our board made a commitment last March not to financially hurt any one of our associates,” Webb said. “So we found new jobs for them to do as our volume declined.”
Unity began offering drive-through COVID testing with results in about 24 hours. It also started a call center to handle COVID-19 questions. Unity also offered an emotional-support line for patients to have a free consultation with a licensed therapist.
Webb said Unity is working to expand its telehealth services to offer 24/7 coverage with all local doctors. Before the pandemic, it had about 50 telehealth visits a month. During COVID, Unity was handling about 2,000 telehealth visits a month.
In the meantime, Unity doesn’t have any immediate plans for any other growth.
“We really want to focus on getting Jacksonville up and operational,” Webb said.