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Former Employees, Patients of Closed Crittenden Regional Hospital Leave Town

5 min read

The ripple effects from the closing of Crittenden Regional Hospital in September and the bankruptcy of the nonprofit that operated it have been felt across eastern Arkansas and into Tennessee.

The lack of hospital and emergency services in Crittenden County has forced patients to drive across the state border to Memphis or between 40 and 60 miles away to Forrest City or Jonesboro. Doctors, nurses and support staff from the facility have also started working at other hospitals in the region.

Resuming hospital services is still months away, even if the hospital were sold immediately, and the county is running out of funds to pay for the facility’s insurance and utilities.

The trustee handling the bankruptcy for the hospital’s former owners said two vendors have taken back equipment from the hospital, but that the facility is still largely intact. He said discussions are continuing with two groups interested in taking over the hospital and that he is selling off available assets to pay debts

Crittenden County Judge Woody Wheeless said that could mean a full-service hospital returning to the area or being replaced by only emergency services. But he said the clock is also running out on the county’s ability to cover the costs of the facility’s insurance and maintenance, which are currently $100,000 a month.

The county judge said those maintenance costs are “major,” given the county’s annual budget of about $17.3 million.

Wheeless said both interested groups have said they would plan to lease the facility from the county at no cost — the same agreement under which the Crittenden Hospital Association operated — but would be required to pay at least $2 million to make the facility available.

That money would be required to release the property because it was used as collateral for bonds issued in 2007.

But Wheeless said that amount is much less than what the hospital would have cost before the bankruptcy. When the Crittenden Hospital Association filed for bankruptcy in September, it reported $33.3 million in debts and $27.75 million in assets.

“I believe the biggest issue was that if somebody came in here, they were going to acquire the whole amount of debt. Today if somebody comes in here they won’t,” Wheeless said.

The hospital received only one offer to buy the hospital before the bankruptcy — from Tenet HealthSystem Medical Inc. of Dallas, according to minutes of meetings of the hospital board that were reviewed by Arkansas Business. But that $12 million offer did not address the hospital’s pension, which was underfunded by $5.8 million, or provide a loan to cover a $3 million monthly shortfall.

Wheeless said the county has approved paying for utilities and insurance on the facility through January, but added that it would likely not be able to pay beyond the last day in February if the hospital isn’t sold.

“One hundred thousand a month is a major hit to us and there will be a stopping point if we can’t work out an agreement with someone in the near future,” Wheeless said.

A. Jan Thomas Jr., the U.S. bankruptcy trustee handling the case, said he didn’t want to estimate what kind of offer could be made on the hospital.

“I don’t know what it’s going to be; I have no idea until they make the offer. I’m not going to put a figure on it for fear of running them off. They will make whatever offer they feel is a fair offer, and I will consider it and go forward with it one way or the other,” Thomas said.

Thomas said fewer than 10 medical devices have been removed from the hospital and that the rest of the vendor equipment remains in place for the next operator.

Patients Go Elsewhere

While the county and the bankruptcy trustee try to find a buyer, Wheeless said, the majority of patients are choosing to go over the river to Memphis for treatment. He said increased admissions at area hospitals have also increased wait times to between two and six hours.

Paul Cunningham, executive vice president of the Arkansas Hospital Association, said that in 2013, the hospital recorded about 3,000 inpatient admissions and 38,000 outpatient visits. He said the Forrest City Medical Center has said it has seen “quite an impact” but has not reported numbers to the association.

A spokesman for the hospital was not able to make someone available to discuss the impact by press time.

Cunningham said it was logical that patients would choose the nearest hospital — Forrest City — but that many were likely being treated in Memphis.

Angie Golding, the director of strategic communications for Regional One Health in Memphis, said the patient volume of people from Arkansas has “increased significantly” since Crittenden Regional closed.

Golding said that between August and September 2013, the hospital recorded 2,294 “patient encounters” with people from Arkansas. During the same period last year, the hospital recorded 4,983 encounters with Arkansas patients.

Golding said the facility has also hired eight former staff members from the West Memphis hospital. She said two or three were managerial positions and the rest were clinical staff.

A spokesman for Baptist Memorial Health Care said Baptist Memphis and Baptist DeSoto have also seen an increase in emergency room visits and hospital admissions after Crittenden Regional’s closing, but said it was difficult to identify the particular cause of the increase.

A spokesman for Methodist Le Bonheur in Memphis, which was hired in 2012 to provide consulting for Crittenden, said no one was available to talk about the effect the hospital’s closing has had on its facility.

Brad Parsons, the administrator and CEO of NEA Baptist Memorial Hospital in Jonesboro, said his facility has also seen growth, but attributed it to its being a new facility, and not necessarily because of Crittenden Regional Hospital’s closing.

“Certainly with the closure at Crittenden [Regional] that has an impact on our continued growth, but we don’t see a significant portion of that growth coming from the West Memphis area. We see our growth coming from all over the region,” Parsons said.

Parsons said his facility has hired five to 10 former Crittenden Regional employees, largely nursing staff, and that others are considering where to go.

Cunningham, the hospital association executive, said at least one surgeon from Crittenden Regional has performed about 30 surgical procedures at the Great River Medical Center in Blytheville. And an OB/GYN from West Memphis has delivered 72 babies at Great River, including when Crittenden Regional was closed because of a fire in June.

Assets Sold

Thomas said he has sold several big ticket items belonging to the hospital, but that he would continue to sell available assets. He said he was keeping the hospital intact while shedding items like unattached land holdings and buildings.

According to an order filed Dec. 31, Thomas sold two clinics, a dental office, an apartment complex and five plots of land for $636,000.

Thomas has also asked the court to approve the sale of assets from the hospital’s home health care business, totaling $3.15 million, and an agreement to lease some of the hospital’s equipment for $36,500.

The funds from the home health care business sale have been held in escrow pending a decision by the bankruptcy court. At issue is which entity is entitled to those funds first.

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