BY ANDY TAYLOR
A major blow was dealt to the Independence community — and to the future of medical coverage in Montgomery County — on Wednesday when officials with Mercy Hospital and Coffeyville Regional Medical Center ended discussions toward a possible affiliation.
The lack of resolution toward an affiliation between the two hospitals means Independence will likely be devoid of hospital and emergency room coverage in the near future. Coffeyville Regional Medical Center will continue to serve its patients and provide medical coverage to its customer base in southeast Kansas.
Mercy Hospital has previously stated that it would end its local business operations by Oct. 10. However, Joanne Smith, Mercy spokesperson, said Mercy officials will unveil a schedule of phased-out services this week.
Mercy has several medical properties within the Independence and Cherryvale communities, including medical clinics in both towns; Mercy Health For Life, a physical fitness and physical therapy center; a local hospital, which has downsized its services in recent months due to the departure of several physicians; and medical clinics in Independence and Cherryvale. At presstime, it was unknown which of those properties would be closed.
In April 2014, Mercy Hospital announced it would enter into a “discernment” process whereby it would examine its future in Montgomery County. It was later revealed that the Sisters of Mercy, the parent company of Mercy Hospital, would divest itself of its properties in southeast Kansas, including Independence and Fort Scott.
Mercy had discussions with a fellow Catholic charity, St. John Health System of Oklahoma. However, those discussions ended without a resolution.
Mercy then entered into discussions with Coffeyville Regional Medical Center earlier this year concerning a possible affiliation or partnership. After several months of talks, both entities signed a letter of understanding, which is a preliminary agreement before the performance of due diligence, announcing plans to consolidate services while leaving some basic medical services in Independence. The City of Independence entered the negotiations by agreeing to provide $3 million in bonds as an incentive to retain basic medical services in the community under the CRMC umbrella.
However, except for the announcement of a letter of understanding between the two hospitals and the agreement from the City of Independence would provide a $3 million incentive in those negotiations, discussions between CRMC and Mercy were confidential. Officials from both hospitals as well as the City of Independence could not comment publicly about the status or state of those negotiations. It’s not known why the discussions between the two entities ended this week or what the key issues were that kept the two groups from forming an affiliation.
Wednesday’s announcement concludes the attempt by both hospitals to reach some type of long-term accord.
“Our goal from the beginning has been to bring stability and security to the future of health services in Independence,” said Kim Day, Mercy chief executive officer. “Despite the tremendous commitment of both Mercy and CRMC over many months, unfortunately we are unable to achieve this goal.”
Mark Woodring, CRMC chief executive officer, said it was disappointing that a final definitive agreement could not be reached between the two hospitals. However, he said CRMC remained “unequivocally committed” toward building a rural health delivery model for Montgomery County.
“We remain undeterred, optimistic and passionate in our mission to provide vital health care services to our region,” said Woodring. “CRMC will continue to strengthen our organization as we work together with our communities to overcome the economic, political and regulatory headwinds facing rural health care providers across the country today.”
Jim Kelly, who serves as chairman of the Mercy Hospital board of directors, admitted to being disappointed that the affiliation discussions with CRMC did not end with an agreement. However, he said he appreciated the amount of time and depth of study that CRMC officials put into those discussions.
“This is not an easy road for us now,” he said. “However, it’s not a road that we quit on.”
City manager Micky Webb said the announcement of the two hospitals’ inability to reach an affiliation resolution was bad news for Independence. However, he said that he was conferring with several other medical entities in the region to discuss the situation and get their perspective on possible medical coverage in Independence.
“All I can say is there is some hope,” he said of prospects of another medical provider establishing a presence in Independence. “We have conference calls scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.”
Webb would not provide the names of those entities, nor could he comment on the Mercy-CRMC affiliation discussions because of a confidentiality agreement.
He also said he was conferring with U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran during the senator’s stop in Independence on Wednesday.
“I’m a bit more hopeful today (Wednesday) than I was when I was told of the affiliation discussions ending on Tuesday,” said Webb. “Regardless, it’s a very difficult situation for Independence.”
Webb also said the $3 million in bonds that had been promised for the Mercy-CRMC affiliation would not be used until an agreement could be reached with another medical provider that might have an interest in locating to Independence.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Independence is the 37th largest town in Kansas in terms of population (9,483). According to the Kansas Hospital Association, several larger towns, such as Haysville, Merriam and Lansing, do not have hospitals. However, those communities are located in suburban areas where access to medical care is readily available.
When the Sisters of Mercy close its hospitals doors in Independence, the community will carry the status of being the largest “rural” town in Kansas without hospital coverage.
Speaking at a town hall meeting on Wednesday, U.S. Senator Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, who has advocated the need for more medical access in rural communities, bemoaned the announcement that CRMC and Mercy had discontinued affiliation talks. He said Independence was far too strong of a community to be without medical coverage.
However, he insists that finding a solution to a complicated problem as medical care will require efforts from all people — including himself. He said he intended to focus on some of the Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement problems that have plagued medical centers and clinics across the nation. Those reimbursement issues have been a major point of contention among hospital administrators for years.
The fact that the Sisters of Mercy has chosen to remove Mercy Hospital Independence, combined with the failure of Mercy and CRMC to reach an affiliation pact, is not a signal that a solution can’t be found, Moran said. Even though the state of medical care is confronted with numerous challenges, rural towns like Independence need and must rely on a strong medical community.
“That hospital matters greatly to the future of this community,” he said of Mercy Hospital. “It’s nothing where you just shrug your shoulders and say ‘It won’t work any more.’ In my view, it’s a situation where you just roll up your shirt sleeves and work to find a solution.”
Moran, who has visited all 127 hospitals in Kansas during his years in U.S. Congress, said many of the problems confronting all hospitals — rural or urban — were similar. However, rural hospitals, by their very nature, tend to have a more difficult time recruiting physicians and their families to their communities, which makes the challenges for Independence even more difficult.