Christmas finally arrives for Coffeyville woman — 47 years after giving daughter to adoption

BY ANDY TAYLOR
chronicle@taylornews.org

COFFEYVILLE — A Christmas tree has not adorned Mary Boyd’s house in 47 years.

Even if she had one, she did not have a family to celebrate it with her.

The thought of having a colorful, lively Christmas tree that beams with happiness, serves as a backdrop for photos that are shared with others, and echoes with the laughter and shrieks of delight from grandchildren . . . those are the cherished memories Mary Boyd has desired and prayed for.

But because of a series of painful situations that confronted Boyd when she was a young and abused mother in the late 1960s, Christmas has had no meaning.

“I would intentionally not decorate my house because I knew it would just be lonely and sad,” she said from her home in Coffeyville.

However, such sadness will not befall Mary Boyd’s house any further . . . especially in the weeks following the Christmas season. That’s because the great gift called Family reached her front door on Saturday in the form of a reunion of a child she gave up for adoption in 1969.

When Mary Boyd looked in the eyes of her daughter, Jodi Sykes, for the first time on Saturday afternoon, all the years of missed birthdays, the pain of quiet and cold Christmases, and her inability of spoiling grandkids vanished.

“I’m here,” said Jodi Sykes with open arms as she walked across the threshold of her mother’s house on Dakota Street.

And, with that, Mary Boyd and Jodi Sykes embraced tightly and sobbed . . . for three very long minutes.

* * * *

Mary Boyd’s journey as a young mother in the 1960s was filled with mountaintops and valleys.

But mostly valleys.

A resident in East St. Louis, Mo., Mary was pregnant and married by age 17. Teenage pregnancy in the early 1960s was a different time, when community norms relegated young mothers to near obscurity.

Her marriage to Forrest Robert Powell Sr., was a blur of constant abuse and strife. When they were first married, Forrest drove an ice cream truck. By 1968, Forrest and Mary (Boyd) Powell would be the parents of four children: three boys and one girl. They lived in Washington Park, Ill., during those years as the marriage crumbled. He lost his job as an ice cream truck driver and found himself hauling wrecked cars as a tow truck driver. She stayed at home to raise the family.

In 1968, Mary, who was pregnant with their fifth child, found herself as a single mother. Forrest had divorced Mary and, in the process, convinced state officials that she was an unfit mother. So, in the divorce process, the court awarded sole custody of the four Powell children to Forrest Powell.

That left Mary with the choice of raising her unborn child herself . . . or allowing the child to be adopted to another family. Mary chose the latter.

On a day that has literally been wiped away from Mary’s memory (“I can’t even tell you what day it was”), Mary gave birth to a baby girl in the St. Mary’s Hospital in St. Louis, Mo. Those were the days when a birth mother who chose to give up a newborn infant to adoption had no ability to see or touch that child. When the umbilical cord was severed, the act literally severed any connection between Mary Boyd and her daughter.

“I never even saw her . . . or got to hold her,” said Mary. “The nurses and doctor cut the cord, cleaned her up, and walked out the room with the baby in their arms.”

And, with that act of coldness, Mary Boyd was thrust into an incredibly painful period.

She was alone.

She reeled from a marriage that probably should not have happened. She no longer had any contact with her four children who, by the time she gave birth to her fifth child, were ages 2 through 6.

The fifth child simply vanished into an adoption system.

So, Mary Boyd tried to rebuild her life. She never remarried. And, she purposely shunned the Christmas season.

By 2004, after spending much of her adult years in Illinois and Missouri, she moved to Montgomery County to be close to her sister, Loretta Glasgow of Caney. Mary would live in Caney, Tyro and Coffeyville — working jobs in nursing homes and as an elder caregiver.

And, no day went by without Mary Boyd wondering what happened to her five children.

* * * *

While Mary Boyd spent many years wondering to the whereabouts of her children, a young Jodi Wells, who was living in southwestern Illinois, began a quest for her biological roots. While as a nosey teenager in the early 1980s, Jodi thumbed through some of her parents’ private belongings when she discovered a sealed bag containing an adoption certificate.

She read it.

And, after getting over the initial shock, she began to ask questions.

“I asked my mom and dad about the certificate, and that’s when they confirmed that I was adopted at birth,” said Jodi, recalling her adoption discovery when she was age 12. “All I knew of my birth parents was their names, when I was born (Jan. 20, 1969) and where I was born.”

That began Jodi’s quest to discover her biological roots. Just who were Forrest Robert Powell Jr. and Mary (Boyd) Powell? Did she have any brothers and sisters?

The many decades of questions and endless detective work began to bear fruit only in the past several months. An “adoption angel,” a person who is able to trace records in order birth parents and their biological children who are adopted to other families, was able to connect Jodi with a half sister, Brittany (Powell) Phillips, who was one of Forrest Powell’s children from a later marriage, living in Runnells, Iowa. Upon connecting with Brittany, Jodi learned that her biological father died in the 1990s. However, Jodi and Brittany had no information about Mary (Boyd) Powell . . . or even if Mary (Boyd) Powell went by the same name as she did in 1969.

Jodi even made a list — with data collected from online telephone directories — of persons named “Mary Boyd” in the United States. She even made cold calls to some of those numbers and wrote letters to others. Ninety-seven people named Mary Boyd were contacted. Each time she made a call or wrote a letter, she would not find the Mary Boyd whom she only knew as a name on an adoption certificate.

Leave it to the world of social media, specifically Facebook, to become the vehicle that would connect Jodi Sykes with her biological mother. Using a search engine on Facebook, Jodi Sykes was able to find Teresa McVey of Tyro. Teresa McVey listed a Mary Boyd as one of her Facebook friends. However, the Mary Boyd who was listed on McVey’s Friends list had not had any activity on her page in many months.

Teresa said she received a phone call from Brittany Powell last Tuesday.

“She asked me how I knew the Mary Boyd who was listed as a Facebook friend,” McVey said. “She asked me questions that only Mary’s personal friends would know. That’s when I knew immediately that I came across a person who knew something about one of Mary’s children.”

Teresa McVey has good reason to know much about Mary Boyd. Mary serves as the caregiver to Teresa’s elderly parents living near Tyro. Mary’s closeness to McVey and her parents made her a virtual family member in McVey’s life. Teresa also has been able to hear the stories of Boyd’s past.

“She has had an incredible journey throughout her life,” said McVey. “I can’t imagine what would go through a mother’s heart when she has lost all of her five children and had no way of knowing where they went.”

* * * *

Last Thursday, Teresa McVey surprised Mary Boyd by giving her a picture of an adult woman in her late 40s holding a grandbaby. That image was of Jodi Sykes — which marked the first time that Mary Boyd had ever seen a photograph of her youngest child.

“I couldn’t believe what Teresa was telling me,” Boyd said. “I just sat in my dining room chair looking at this photo and hearing for the first time that one of my children was looking for me.”

So, since learning of the whereabouts of her youngest daughter and learning that Jodi and her husband were planning a trip to Coffeyville last weekend for a reunion, Mary Boyd’s world has been a roller-coaster.

“This is all I’ve thought about since Teresa told me,” said Boyd. “I’ll even wake up at 1 o’clock in the morning and think about it. It’s just something incredibly overwhelming.”

On Saturday, the years of frustration and anguish came to an end for both Boyd and Sykes. Jodi Sykes, who now lives in Collinsville, Ill., re-entered Mary Boyd’s life 47 years to the very week that Mary gave birth to Jodi. Their tight embrace in Boyd’s living room was matched by the volume of tears that flowed liberally from their eyes and onto each other’s tear-stained shoulders.

“You are going home with me,” joked Jodi as she hugged her mom.

As the mother and daughter were able to dry their eyes and begin the process of building a relationship that has been separated by a 47-year void, they promised to try to find the other four children in the Powell family. Jodi said she hopes to find the whereabouts of her sister Rosemary and her three brothers: Michael Casey Powell, James Preston Pope Powell and Forrest Robert Powell Jr.

For now, Mary’s life that has been a broken puzzle is slowing being pieced together, one person at a time.

“In my wildest dreams, I thought it would be one of my boys who would come looking for me, but I never thought it would be the youngest daughter who I never knew,” she said. “I’m just glad to have my baby back.”

Sykes said she plans on making numerous trips to Coffeyville — and bringing her own four children and 10 grandchildren to get to know their new grandmother and great-grandmother in the Sunflower State.

Mary has already received one note from a grandchild via Facebook, a note that indicated Mary would be widely accepted and loved in her newly-found family.

And, what about the years that time has painfully put on hold?

One of the first things that Mary Boyd told her daughter on Saturday was that she has not decorated a Christmas tree in more than 47 years.

With that painful confession that came from her mother’s lips, Jodi Sykes could only look at her mother’s teary eyes, listen to Mary’s quivering voice, and whisper a long, exasperating, “Wow,” as she shook her head in equally matched pain.

They then cried again . . . and hugged for a very long time.

Christmas may have finally arrived.

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Deadline to file as candidate for Caney City Council is Jan. 26

Caney city voters will go to the polls in the spring months to decide four positions for the Caney City Council.

The deadline to file for candidacy for those four positions is noon Tuesday, Jan. 26. The four positions that will be decided in the spring election cycle will be:

• Ward 1: position now held by council Nathan Byrd.

• Ward 2: position now held by councilor Ralph Anthony.

• Ward 3: position now held by councilor Dan Vernon.

• Ward 4: position now held by councilor Zoe Wahl.

If four or more candidates file any one of the four positions, then a run-off election will be required on Tuesday, March 1. The general election will be held on Tuesday, April 5 with the winning candidates assuming the oath of office at the second Caney City Council meeting in April.

Normally, all city council positions are two-year terms. However, the Kansas Legislature in 2015 approved a new law that moves all local elections (city council, school board, community college trustees) to the fall election cycle effective in 2017. That means the winning candidates in the spring election cycle — which will be the final spring elections in Caney due to the change in state law — will have to serve a longer- term in office as the council positions transition to a new election timeframe.

Persons interested in filing for the council elections should fill out the necessary paperwork at Caney City Hall.

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“I’ll Be Home For Christmas” — America returns home from war

BY ANDY TAYLOR
chronicle@taylornews.org

It was deemed the largest military movement in the history of the world.

Yet a single bullet was never fired. No bombs were dropped. And, a peace treaty was not needed.

It was the homecoming of the U.S. troops from Europe and the Pacific Theatre following the conclusion of World War II. Under President Harry Truman’s wish, all U.S. servicemen and servicewomen whose term of duty was set to expire would return to the U.S. mainland in time for Christmas 1945.

What better Christmas gift to give to the victorious United States than to bring home the men and women who had been embroiled in a global fight since December 7, 1941?

However, getting the more than 3 million soldiers, sailors and airmen back to the continental United States would prove to be a logistical nightmare that tested every mode of transportation and every military commander’s wisdom to the fullest extent. The defeat of tyranny and fascism in two hemispheres over the span of almost four years was one thing; the movement of those heroic veterans to their native shores in the span of two short months was quite another.

That’s why the homecoming ceremonies that took place across the nation 70 years ago this week were the culmination of the largest movement of military personnel ever known. The end result? Millions of families were reunited with their sons and daughters under the crisp Christmas air . . . while tens of thousands of others mourned silently and quietly as they dealt with the loss of their loved ones.

Many others would be caught in the snarl of trains, buses, and cabs across the nation in the final two weeks of Christmas 1945 — 70 years ago.

By the time autumn colors had reached the United States in late 1945, the smoke had literally cleared from both sides of the world.

A bombed-out European continent was starting to rebuild . . . while also coming to realize the shameful atrocities committed by Hitler’s Third Reich.

In the Pacific, weary U.S. sailors who were accustomed to island hopping were now mopping up the carnage of the Japanese empire — incinerated by two atomic bombs that forever scorched the Land of the Rising Sun.

In leading a triumphant United States in its victories over the Axis powers, President Harry Truman held true to his goal to return servicemen and servicewomen to the United States for Christmas. Such a measure required a massive military endeavor. It was called Operation Santa Claus and Operation Magic Carpet — a mass movement of military personnel whose collective compasses were pointing toward the U.S. ports.

In his 2010 book “Christmas 1945,” Matthew Litt wrote about the Army and Navy’s valiant attempt to rush men and women to the U.S. shores — and ultimately to their families — before Christmas. On the weekend that began on Saturday, Dec. 22, there were 200,000 servicemen who made it back to the United States soil but had yet to reach their homes and families. Some 150,000 of those servicemen were holed up on U.S. ports on the West Coast. Likewise, 50,000 troops were in the East Coast ports.

Rail lines were inundated with requests to get troops to mainland bases for the eventual discharge of the soldiers and sailors. Bus services were overwhelmed. Telegram and postal services had to operate with additional help to handle the sheer avalanche of messages.

To compound the influx of servicemen and servicewomen, Mother Nature flexed her muscle by delivering snow storms through much of the nation, thereby bringing the movement of traffic to a near standstill.
“By Sunday afternoon, December 23rd, it had become clear to the nation’s port cities that they would become temporary homes to thousands of servicemen and servicewomen unable to make it to their destinations,” wrote Litt.

To those transportation services that were able to move the troops, the sheer volume of passengers in uniform was overwhelming.

“Three of four travelers were active service people on furlough, or fully separated veterans,” wrote Litt. “Airlines, railroads and bus companies pressed additional trains, buses and planes into service, but their action failed to alleviate the jams.”

So, for many service personnel, a Christmas homecoming was either held in the comforts of their family homes . . . or found in the waiting rooms of bus stations and train depots across the nation.

Burle Neely, who has lived in Coffeyville since 1948, knows well the feeling of euphoria when returning home from war. When he was discharged as a tech sergeant in the U.S. Army Air Corps in December 1945, he had his fill of the military lifestyle — and the perils of warfare.

Neely was one of four mechanical crewmen who flew aboard C-46 and C-47 cargo airplanes for the U.S. Army Air Corps in the China-India-Burma theatre.

“We flew the ‘Hump’,” Neely said this week. “That was a nickname for the Himalayan Mountains. The best maps we had at that time showed the mountains at about 5,000 feet. They were actually 20,000 feet. So, our airplanes had to fly through the mountains. We never flew over them.”
As a low-ranking crewman, Neely never had advanced knowledge of their missions. Nor did he know the destination of those missions. In many cases, he never knew where the cargo planes were going — or even where they were going to land.

“I just took my seat in the cargo area and didn’t ask questions,” said Neely. “My job was to worry about the aircraft itself. We made sure it could fly. The destination was the pilot’s concern, not mine.”

When the war ended in the Pacific in August 1945, Neely made the jaunt back to U.S. bases in the Pacific. Hopes were high that he could make a flight to the U.S. mainland. However, plans changed, and he joined a troop ship that made the slow trek from Japan to San Francisco in 19 days.

“Once we got back to the U.S. mainland, we took a troop train to Fort Logan in Colorado,” he said. “I was discharged on December 15, 1945, and I got home to my parents’ farm near Edna on December 16, 1945. I got home the day after my dad’s birthday. So, my family was in the middle of celebrating it. When I arrived, we celebrated some more. Then, Christmas came the next week. And, we celebrated. In all, I think my family celebrated for about six weeks. There was nothing like it.”

Direct communication in late 1945 focused on postcards, letters, and telegrams. Telephone calls were still a novelty item, especially in rural Labette County, where the Neely family phone was part of a rural line that was unreliable.

“I remember postcards were a penny, and a first-class letter was 3 cents,” he said.

“When we got back to our home base in Colorado, we were allowed one free phone call. My parents got my notes in the mail that I would be coming home before Christmas. So, they were expecting me.”

Seventy years later, tears still stream down the wrinkled face of Burle Neely in recalling his homecoming experience. Neely is symbolic of the millions of soldiers and sailors who put in their time to fight tyranny and fascism. They returned to the United States as heroic victors — albeit battle scared and hardened. They married, raised families, worked hard and quietly, and asked for little — except to live in a country that proved it could respond to when the rest of the world faced imminent danger.

For Neely, a stint in the United States Army Air Corps was followed by a career with the Southwestern Bell Telephone Company.

“When I see what we went through during the war and seeing what our country is facing today, I think it would do us some good if our young men and women had to provide one year of military service after high school,” he said. “I think we would be a stronger nation as a result.”

* * * *

In Caney, seven brothers gathered around the family table, prayed for blessings, and then engorged themselves on homemade fare. They were the Kannard brothers — seven of whom who had served in the U.S. military and had made it back it their parents’ home in time for the Christmas meal.

In Litt’s “Christmas 1945” book, the author writes that the Kannard gathering was one of the more unusual homecomings in the United States because all seven brothers survived the war . . . and made it back to Caney in time to celebrate Christmas.

The seven Kannard brothers in the U.S. military were Captain Verle, Staff Sergeants Kenneth, Donald, Leslie and Richard, Private First Class Robert, and Technician Fifth Grade Glen.

Likely bumping into her uncles around that crowded table was Karen Taylor, a niece of the seven brothers who still resides in Caney. Taylor was only age 4 at the time of that Kannard brothers’ reunion and has no memories of it — other than it was an occasion that her family would talk about for many years.

“I was much too young to remember it, but I know my family talked about my uncles’ service to their country,” she said. “It seemed unusual because seven brothers who joined the service.”

* * * *

Charles Harrington of Coffeyville knew of no other town than his native South Coffeyville when he joined the U.S. Army. Imagine his shock when Harrington, upon joining the military, found himself amid total strangers — albeit fellow Army soldiers — in England and later in France and Germany.
“When the war was over, I wanted desperately to come back home,” he said. “I sustained a non-combat injury when the truck I was on in France went off the side of a road because someone cut us off on a road. I got thrown off the truck. So, I was able to take a troop ship back to New York City.

“However, some of the people aboard the ship were the first U.S. prisoners of war to be released. They obviously got the first-class treatment. While playing cards with some of my buddies on that troop ship, I looked across the room and saw another of my South Coffeyville friends, Grayson Davis. He had been a prisoner of war in a German camp. Think of it: I didn’t know a soul in Europe, got on the ship with thousands of other soldiers for a voyage home, and there was someone from my hometown of South Coffeyville sitting right across from me.”

Elder years have taken a toll on some of Harrington’s memories of his return home to Kansas.

However, he recalls fondly the joyous thrill of returning to the United States.

“The military packed those troop ships full of goodies,” he said. “We could go to the ship canteen and get anything we wanted: pop, ice cream, candy bars, magazines . . . just everything. We had been fighting on European soil for so many months that we simply took advantage of every piece of candy and bottle of soda pop. It was a thrill.”

* * * *

Ethan Temple of Independence was among the several million GIs in Europe who were battle weary and hungry by fall 1945. Already having experienced the end of European conflict in April 1945, GIs like Temple were awaiting their orders to return to the United States in the fall.

For Staff Sgt. Ethan Temple, it meant going home to his hometown of Marion, Ohio.

“I honestly don’t recall much about the trip home except I was able to get home right before Christmas,” said Temple, who spent most of his adulthood in Independence. “I do remember mustered out of service in Indian Point, Pennsylvania.”

While many soldiers and sailors were able to enjoy Christmas 1945 in the warmth of their hometowns, other servicemen were stuck in train depots, bus stations or even on troop ships.

Such was the case of R.J. Osborn of Independence, whose return home was delayed until March. An ensign in the U.S. Navy, Osborn was stuck outside of San Francisco aboard a troop ship, awaiting his final discharge.

“We were down to eating our K rations,” said Osborn, laughing at the memory of the sailors munching on canned food for sustenance.

Osborn didn’t climb out of the ship until March 1946, long after much of the fanfare and welcome home celebrations had ended just several months prior.

Bud Baden of Independence also recalls a belated homecoming in his hometown. A member of the U.S. Army Air Corps in the Pacific Theatre, Baden was a sergeant on an air-sea rescue team that was responsible for fishing out downed pilots and their crews in the shark-infested waters of the Pacific.

However, when the war officially ended in September 1945, he thought his career in the military had finally come to an end.

It did not.

Baden and his fellow Army Air Corps servicemen took up quarters at the Atsugi Air Base in Japan. Their dormitory was formerly occupied by Japanese aviation trainees.

However, on their first days inside the dormitory, fire consumed the facility, destroying everything that belonged to Baden and his fellow servicemen.

“We lost everything except what we had on our backs,” he said. “So, we had to rebuild our lives, which meant rebuilding our documentation and records. That took quite a bit of time, because our discharge was based on how long we had served. So, we were among the last to come home. I personally didn’t get home until January 1946.”

Baden said he recalls docking in Tacoma, Wash., staying three days on a ship but getting daily passes to see Tacoma. He was shipped by train to Colorado, where he was mustered out of service at Fort Logan.

“We then took the train to Kansas City and stopped at Union Station,” he said. “I was a kid from a small town in Kansas. That Union Station appeared to me like a massive structure. It was something to behold.”

Euary Smith of Coffeyville was another war veteran whose Christmas 1945 experience was spent aboard a ship anchored in a foreign harbor.

Smith was a helmsman for a landing craft ship, known as an LCS, for the U.S. Navy in the Pacific. He was a late comer to the war, having served in the military for the final two years of the war. That meant he was going to have to fulfill his minimum time requirement for Uncle Sam, thereby forcing him to spend Christmas away from his home.

Home was Checotah, Okla., and Smith would not see his hometown until May 1946.

“I spent Christmas 1945 anchored in a harbor in Sasebo, Japan,” remembered Smith. “We were able to get passes to go ashore, but I think we spent much of it on the ship.”

Smith had to spend several months aboard naval ships while they made the agonizingly slow trek back to the U.S. mainland.

“I was on a LCS that traveled no faster than 16 knots,” he said. “So, it took two months and one day to get from Japan to San Francisco. Of course, we stopped at every island between Japan and California, including three days in Hawaii.”

Once anchored outside Los Angeles, Smith was depressed to find out that his ship would have to take another route home — via Portland, Oregon.

“We went up the coast and eventually caught a train from Portland to Oklahoma City,” said Smith. “From there, I was able to get home by May 1946.”

In Montgomery County, the first peacetime Christmas since 1940 proved to be a boom for local businesses.

And, by the appearances of the advertisements that appeared in local newspapers, it appeared that vehicle tires were at the top of everyone’s Christmas list.

The Cherryvale Daily Republican of December 1945 shows numerous advertisements for tires — a luxury item by 1945 as several years of rationed rubber forced residents to patch older tires, drive on bald ones, or do away with them entirely.

An Otasco store in Cherryvale had a large supply of tires available for the Christmas season, and local gasoline stations filled the Daily Republican with ads promoting available tires.

In Independence, the Independence Army Air Field was at a near standstill. Training for fighter pilots had all but ended. And, the air field hosted its final public “field day” in early December to showcase the last remaining warbirds to the public. This include B-24 and B-17 bombers, and the P-59 fighter and the P-61 night fighter. AT-6 and C-47 airplanes also were on display. So many surplus airplanes were on display that they stretched from wing tip to wing tip and filled the entire tarmac and runway, according to newspaper accounts.

The airplanes would eventually be scrapped — and the air field itself would become the present-day Independence Airport.

In Coffeyville, local officials were clamoring to adjust to the surge of war veterans to the community. In mid-December, officials stated that the community needed as many as 300 new houses over the course of 1946 to accommodate the veteran influx.

The problem confronting Coffeyville was a lack of building materials — most of which had been speedily provided to the war effort from 1941 through 1945.

And, in Caney, the editor of the local newspaper, H.K. “Skeet” George, provided daily coverage of the homecoming celebrations befalling numerous homes across the community. “Our Boys” was a daily column on page 1 of each four-page edition of the Caney Daily Chronicle. “Our Boys” contained stories of servicemen and servicewomen who were either home on honorable discharge or making a brief stop for the holidays.

On Dec. 24, 1945, George wrote an editorial that talked about the spirit of a peaceful Christmas — something that the United States had not experienced since 1940. In many other countries, war and hostility had ravaged an entire generation of the human race, making Christmas 1945 a rare moment in modern civilization whereby the world’s citizenry could peacefully coexist — albeit amid rubble and ruin.

The continental United States was fortunate to have been spared the catastrophe of war, George said. However, the country literally sacrificed its youngest and bravest men to take the cause of universal freedom, he said.

That’s why Christmas Eve 1945 proved to be such a strong time for mankind, he wrote. George wrote, “The spirit of Christmas has a strong hold upon the human race — a hold that seemingly becomes stronger as the years go by. No other event as the birth of Christ is so universally celebrated, no other holiday is looked forward to with the mingled feeling of reverence and exuberance as is Christmas.

“Christianity has its scoffers today as it had through the ages — weak, frail human beings who blossom, perhaps, for a day to cast ridicule and mockery, only to sink forgotten into the dust. But Christianity, and the spirit of Christmas, lives on and on, as only divine things can.

“Most of us come far short of reaching into sublime heights of Christian living that is possible if only we would follow the simple teachings of the One whose birth we celebrate tomorrow. But we do know that His teachings and the example He set during his 33 years upon earth have caused many millions of people to try to be better men and women, and have brought hope and comfort to a world that today certainly would be in blackest agony were it not for the spirit He has instilled into the hearts of man.

“True, Christmas is desecrated by commercialism and wickedness. But equally true is the fact that most deeds of human kindness are done during the Christmas season than at any other time. The joy that reigned on the day of Christ’s birth still prevails. In millions of homes throughout the world, it is multiplied joy this year, because loved ones who have faced death on the field of battle are home . . . and peace reigns supreme for the first time in many years.”

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City of Independence accepts donation of hospital property, inks letter of intent with St. John Health System

BY ANDY TAYLOR
chronicle@taylornews.org

INDEPENDENCE — The now-vacant Mercy Hospital will be owned by Independence city taxpayers and be the eventual home to a new Independence City Hall under a plan that was approved by a split city commission on Thursday.

Commissioners Gary Hogsett and Fred Meier voted in favor of accepting the donation of the hospital property from Mercy Hospital; Mayor Leonhard Caflisch voted against it.

On a separate vote, but with the same result, the commission also agreed to sign a letter of intent with St. John Health System, which operates Jane Phillips Medical Center in Bartlesville. St. John will lease 10,000 square feet of the hospital from the City of Independence as part of the retention of imaging and radiology services within the hospital building. The imaging services include x-rays, MRI and CT equipment.

Two weeks ago, St. John announced it would assume some of Mercy’s services on Jan. 1, including operation of a primary care clinic, urgent care clinic, radiology and imaging services, Mercy Health For Life fitness center, and Mercy’s retail pharmacy. St. John officials have said in previous press statements that the Oklahoma-based medical provider envisions having an emergency department in Independence; however, St. John has no plans to operate an emergency department in the short term (after Jan. 1).

Meier and Hogsett said they favored the donation of the hospital property, noting that the retention of imaging and x-ray services in the former hospital was a pivotal part of St. John’s medical plans in Independence.

“I have received numerous phone calls from local citizens who say that a core part of our medical services has to be that imaging equipment,” said Meier. “There are people who don’t have the means to drive 30 miles away for testing.

“I see no reason not to do it (accept the donation).”

In late October, Hogsett joined Caflisch in voting against the City’s involvement with St. John’s medical service proposal, which called for taxpayer funds to subsidize St. John’s ledger sheet. However, Hogsett on Thursday revealed a different tune by not only voting in favor of accepting the hospital donation but calling out Caflisch for his previous vote.

“I would love to understand why you have been against this,” Hogsett said to Caflisch. “I have had people ask me, ‘Why is Mayor Caflisch against all of this.’ To me, it’s worthwhile.”

Caflisch, dealing with a case of laryngitis, took more than 15 minutes to present multiple reasons for his discomfort in accepting the hospital . . . and the plans developed by city manager Micky Webb to relocate city offices to the hospital property.

“The primary commitment in this proposal is for a city hall, not health care,” said Caflisch.

Caflisch, an architect by profession, said the plans to convert the bulk of the newer portion of Mercy Hospital into city offices would involve considerable expense on the part of city taxpayers — coming at a time when the community is experiencing a declining population and dwindling tax base.

The lack of a feasibility study to consider the costs and funding streams for the hospital’s conversion into a city office complex also left Caflisch extremely concerned. He said he had previously asked for information related to a feasibility study but was rebuffed by Webb and city staff.

“Last week, I heard the anticipated renovation costs would be about $6 million,” he said. “The next day, I heard it was going to be about $4 million. Somehow, the renovation costs declined by almost $2 million overnight. I don’t understand how that can happen.”

He also spoke about the size of the hospital building and how it would require perpetual funding to operate.

“From a perspective of space planning, the building is grossly oversized for what we need,” he said. “We’ll be paying maintenance larger than what we need.”

Caflisch did not dispute the need for improved office conditions, considering the age and deterioration of the existing Independence City Hall. However, the mayor argued that one-quarter sales tax devoted to municipal facility upgrades had not been fully utilized. And, discussions to make necessary repairs to the existing City Hall have not materialized.

The lack of information from city staff left Caflisch concerned not only about the donation of the hospital from Mercy but also the status of municipal facility repairs.

“If we don’t have the information, how can we make an educated decision,” Caflisch asked. “We have not had the information to justify the donation of a hospital building that I’m afraid we cannot afford.”

Following Caflisch’s presentation, Hogsett softened his tone, saying he understood many of the mayor’s arguments.

“There might not be the ideal solution,” Hogsett said. “We might be getting a building with a lot of white elephants.”

Prior to the commission’s decision, Hogsett opened the discussion to reveal the perceived conflict he has with the medical discussion. Hogsett’s wife is Dr. Anne Hogsett, who is an employee of Mercy Health System and will be joining the staff of Coffeyville Regional Medical Center in January. Questions have been raised in the Independence community as to Commissioner Hogsett’s conflict of interest in the matter, considering he was making a decision involving a company that provides employment to his wife.

However, city attorney Jeff Chubb said he had conferred about the question of Hogsett’s conflict of interest with the Kansas Attorney General’s Office. Chubb said he received a response one hour prior to Thursday’s meeting from the Attorney General, saying Hogsett could be allowed to vote on the matter.

Hogsett did.

Citizens speak

Commissioners heard from several local citizens about their views on the hospital donation.

Ernestine Farrice of Independence spoke against the proposal, saying the previous closed-door discussions and lack of transparency on the part of the commission had created “unearned mistrust.”

She criticized Mercy Health System for imposing confidentiality agreements that shielded discussions from the public. Mercy also kept other medical providers from entering the picture by limiting the potential suitors for Mercy’s services to a single Catholic medical charity: St. John Health System.

“We Americans have never given in to these kind of threats,” said Farrice. “Why should we start now?”

John Vermillion of Independence said he had problems with the commission’s plans to use $3 million in bonds a potential healthcare subsidy for the project. Those bonds have yet to be presented to the public for a vote.

“We should be protective of people’s money,” said Vermillion. “And, it should be done by a vote of the people. That’s what America is about. It’s not about a concentrated resolution of the commission.”

Lori Kelley, president of Equity Bank, spoke in favor of the hospital donation, saying it would spur healthcare activity that was sorely needed in Independence.

“By not having a healthcare decision made, we will frustrate the parties involved and they will eventually walk away in frustration,” said Kelley.

Charles Barker, a local pastor and member of the USD 446 Board of Education, said he preferred to have the commission accept the hospital so that imaging services can be retained. As a minister, Barker said he dealt regularly with people who do not have the transportation resources to have x-rays, tests or other services at medical centers 20 or 30 miles away.

“This is an opportunity to enter an agreement for people who have already lost many services,” said Barker.

Dean Hays of Independence also spoke in favor of having the hospital donated. He said the retention of the imaging service was vital for the community.

“As I understand it, if we don’t accept the hospital, then the hospital property will be demolished and became a vacant lot,” said Hays. “Let’s not let these services leave Independence.”

What is the specific plan for Mercy Health System’s donation of its hospital to the City of Independence?

• Mercy will donate the hospital building to the City of Independence. With its own money, Mercy will demolish the two oldest portions of the hospital, including the “round tower” portion and the 1920-era building.

• Mercy will provide the City of Independence with $500,000 to facilitate the City in its conversion of the hospital building.

• St. John Health System, through its Bartlesville-based provider Jane Phillips Medical Center, will lease about 10,000 square feet of space in the existing hospital for imaging and x-ray services. St. John Health System will lease the space for $100,000 per year. The utility and maintenance costs will be paid by the City of Independence.

• The St. John lease arrangement is for a five-year period, renewable for an additional five years before the conclusion of the first five-year period.

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Labette Health proposes emergency department for Independence

BY ANDY TAYLOR
chronicle@taylornews.org

INDEPENDENCE — Parsons-based Labette Health on Monday officially proposed creation of a medical emergency department in Independence, with the City of Independence using $3 million in bonds to fund the construction or placement of that emergency department in the community.

The formal presentation of Labette Health’s proposal, which was held at a special meeting of the Independence City Commission on Monday, represents another change in the ever-evolving nature of medical coverage in the Independence community since the closure of Mercy Hospital.

No action was taken following a two and a half hour discussion between Labette Health officials and the city commission. However, commissioners said they would discuss the matter in depth at their next regularly scheduled meeting, which will be held at 5:30 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 10 in the Veterans Room at Memorial Hall.

Among the key highlights of Labette Health’s proposal:

• Labette Health would establish a non-profit association to “manage, govern, protect, preserve, establish, own, operate, and maintain its assets to provide emergency and other healthcare services” to the Independence region.

• The association would be governed by a seven-member board. Three of those members would be appointed by the Independence City Commission. Three others would be appointed by the board of Labette Health. The seventh member would be the chief executive officer of Labette Health, who would serve in an ex-officio position.

• The association’s emergency department in Independence would include a minimum of five emergency department treatment rooms, CT and x-ray imaging, laboratory, and any other equipment and resources that are conducive to the operations of an emergency department.

• Labette Health would extend its existing hospital license into the yet-to-be-named association so that proper and legal licensing could be guaranteed in the emergency department.

• The City of Independence would obligate its $3 million in bonds, previously discussed in other medical proposals, solely for the purpose to construct or place an emergency department on behalf of the association. The City of Independence would retain ownership of that facility while the operations would be leased to the association.

• Labette Health would obligate up to $500,000 in excess of the $3 million in city bonds for the project.

• Labette Health would fund all operational losses of the emergency department facility in excess of $500,000. That means the City of Independence, through the proposed non-profit association, would be obligated to guarantee no more than $500,000 per year for 15 years as a stop-gap measure to curtail operational losses. If that $500,000 ceiling limit is hit, then 100 percent of the financial risk shifts to Labette Health.

Brian Williams, Labette Health chief executive officer, emphasized that off-campus emergency departments typically are not “profit centers” for medical providers. In fact, most emergency departments, regardless of their ownership, tend to lose money. Why then would Labette Health propose an emergency department when prevailing business models show it to be a financial risk?

“Because I believe our staff knows we can do it,” said Williams confidently. “This (Independence) is our only market. We have to be successful in what we do because we do not have 130 other markets across the nation to tap into.”

Parsons-based Labette Health, like other medical providers in the region, is looking to tap into the Independence market as a way to boost traffic in its own medical center. However, Williams and other Labette Health officials said the reason they are pursuing an emergency department in Independence also has to do with the increased volume of emergency department traffic at the Parsons hospital ever since the closure of Mercy Hospital in early October.

Additionally, activity in Labette Health’s Independence primary care clinic and urgent care, located in a commercial office building at Sixth and Laurel streets, has increased tremendously — leading Williams to propose construction of a new clinic facility in Independence regardless the outcome of its emergency department proposal.

“My utmost concern is to construct a new clinic for Independence because our existing facility simply can’t hold the demand,” he said. “However, what I need to know from the city commission is if it wants to partner on creating an emergency department. If so, then that will make a difference in whether Labette Health seeks a one-acre tract for a new clinic or whether it needs more land to include a clinic, emergency department . . . and have room for additional growth.”

Commissioners had plenty of questions about the proposal, all of which was discussed openly in public session. Williams was joined by other Labette Health officials at the commission table to discuss the proposal and the City of Independence’s financial obligations.

Commissioner Fred Meier appeared reluctant to dedicate the City’s tax funds and limited debt capacity to a medical project that poses financial risks.

“It’s going to cost us money . . . a lot of money . . . down the road,” said Meier.

Meier also noted that other medical providers, namely St. John Health System, Coffeyville Regional Medical Center, and Mercy Hospital, have said that an off-campus emergency department could not be supported in Independence. He asked why those medical providers believe an emergency department cannot work while Labette Health believes it can.

“Can this proposal be successful?” Williams asked rhetorically. “I can’t give you a guarantee. But, we’re putting the full weight and force of Labette Health behind it.”

Williams said one of the provisions in the proposal allows a departure clause, where, after the third year of the emergency department, Labette Health and the association can chose to sever its relationship and revert the facility solely to a clinic and urgent care. The City of Independence would still own the facility. However, the financial risk would be reduced — if that would be the decision of the governing board.

However, if that provision is not enacted after the third year, then the emergency department would be required to remain open through the duration of the 15-year agreement, he said.

Mayor Leonhard Caflisch had concerns and questions about how the $3 million in bonds, which have not been officially issued, could be used for the project . . . and if those bonds would require voter approval before they are issued. He also asked attorney Tim Emert, who was present at Monday’s meeting in absence of city attorney Jeff Chubb, to explore how the bonds that have been discussed in earlier medical proposals, would differ for the Labette Health proposal.

Commissioner Gary Hogsett also had questions about the proposal, noting the costs associated with it. He hinted at appointing a citizen task force to explore the proposal. He also questioned the timeframe for creating an election in which city voters might have a say on how the bonds could be used.

However, Meier indicated a desire to move ahead on the discussion.

“I think we need to make a decision ourselves very soon — good, bad or ugly,” he said.

Commissioners agreed to discuss the matter at Thursday’s commission meeting.

Because discussion during the meeting revealed that the City of Independence would be responsible for erecting an emergency department on behalf of Labette Health and the unnamed association, it rules out consideration for using the now-closed Mercy Hospital as a site for that emergency department. The Independence City Commission two weeks ago voted to continue discussions with Mercy Health System for the donation of the now-closed hospital to the City of Independence. City officials have indicated the newer portions of the hospital could be converted into municipal offices, thereby replacing the nearly 100-year-old City Hall at Sixth and Myrtle streets. Mercy officials have indicated it would provide some funds to asset the City of Independence with that conversion, provided that the offices would not compete with St. John Health System, the Oklahoma-based medical provider that is assuming some of Mercy’s primary clinic and imaging services in Independence effective Jan. 1, 2016.

Other facets of the proposal that were discussed at Monday’s meeting:

• Dr. Melinda Allen, former emergency department director at Mercy Hospital, has been hired by Labette Health to coordinate the emergency department project in Independence.

• Labette Health, through its hospital in Parsons, is allied with Freeman Health System, which is based in Joplin, Mo. Freeman Health System is initiating a physician training program whereby 150 medical students would come to Freeman for further study and practicum not only in Joplin but also allied facilities in Parsons and perhaps Independence.

“This would be a great training ground for the hiring of new physicians,” said Williams.

Caflisch ‘embarrassed’ by legal maneuver pertaining to Labette Health’s proposal

At Tuesday’s meeting, Mayor Leonhard Caflisch exclaimed embarrassment at a legal situation that raised its head in the minutes leading up to the meeting.

It’s still unclear what was at the core of the legal situation. However, Caflisch said city commissioners had received a letter from Topeka attorney Frankie Forbes, who represents the City of Independence in the healthcare discussions, advising the commission as to whether Labette Health’s proposal should be discussed openly or in executive session. While the letter was not disclosed during the meeting, Caflisch said Forbes advised that the proposal should be discussed openly because it does not fit within the privileges for an executive session, which is closed to the press and public. Forbes’ letter was presented to the commission immediately before it gaveled into session.

Previous commission meetings with all other medical providers had been held in executive session in order to protect the negotiations and confidential data of medical providers’ financial condition.

At Monday’s meeting, all details, including aspects of the usually-confidential Letter of Intent, were openly discussed.

“I am embarrassed,” said a red-faced Caflisch upon reading Forbes’ letter.

Attorney Tim Emert, who was filling in for city attorney Jeff Chubb, paused the meeting so he could confer privately with Caflisch and the legal counsel from Labette Health.

Once the commission learned that the negotiations, based upon Forbes’ recommendation, should be discussed openly, commissioners began a discussion but not before city manager Micky Webb placed his cellular telephone at the commission table.

“Is someone on the telephone?” Caflisch asked.

“Yes. Frankie Forbes is on the phone,” said Webb.

“Why is he even a part of this discussion in open session,” responded Caflisch.

“Okay, I’ll turn it off,” Webb said, after which he removed the telephone from the commission table.

Caflisch shook his head and appeared flustered at the situation.

Brian Williams, Labette Health chief executive officer, said it wasn’t customary to have negotiations discussed openly. However, in the spirit of transparency and openness, he was willing to air the negotiations openly.

“I’m not afraid to hang my laundry,” said Williams with a laugh. “I guess I’ll just hang it in the front yard instead of the back yard.”

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Indy citizens describe feeling of ‘betrayal’ in City’s hospital conversion plans

(Editor’s note: Information about the City of Independence’s plans to convert a portion of Mercy Hospital into municipal offices were unveiled in the Nov. 26 issue of the Montgomery County Chronicle as well as in an earlier post on this website.)

BY ANDY TAYLOR

INDEPENDENCE — “Betrayal” was a word frequently used by more than one dozen Independence residents who spoke at last Tuesday’s special Independence City Commission meeting in which plans for the City of Independence’s occupation of the now-closed Mercy Hospital were disclosed publicly for the first time.

Not only did residents protest plans by city staff to relocate existing city offices into the vacated hospital but many also openly sought the resignation of city manager Micky Webb.

At the end of the two-hour meeting, commissioners voted 2-1 to proceed with negotiations with Mercy Health System concerning the donation of Mercy Hospital to the City of Independence.

Commissioners Fred Meier and Gary Hogsett voted in favor of the motion while Mayor Leonhard Caflisch voted against the measure.

Following the meeting, Caflisch chose not to discuss his dissenting vote on the matter, saying he wished to have more time to digest the information that was presented at the meeting.

Commissioners made the decision after conferring with attorneys for 20 minutes in executive session, which is closed to the press and public. Mercy Health System had imposed a Nov. 30 deadline for the City of Independence to make a decision on whether to accept or reject the donation of the hospital property.

Should the City of Independence not continue its plans to acquire the hospital property, Mercy Hospital has indicated it would demolish the entire structure.

Prior to the vote and the numerous pleas and questions from local residents, commissioners heard an overview of the plans to convert a portion of Mercy Hospital into municipal offices. In addition to converting a portion of the hospital into city offices, city staff had devised a plan to erect a 19,000-square-foot addition to serve as vehicle bays for the City’s firetrucks, ambulance fleet, and other vital heavy equipment that require enclosed storage. That vehicle facility would be located where the older portions of the hospital, including the often-called “round tower” and the original hospital building now stand. Mercy Hospital has indicated it would demolish those two older portions of the hospital.

The estimated cost to remodel the hospital portion and erect the vehicle storage facility would be between $4.5 million to $5 million, said city manager Micky Webb. He added that the cost to erect a new municipal office complex would be between $8 million to $10 million.

Frustration was evident in the voices of the residents who spoke after Webb presented the plan overview. Architect Sean Clapp of Heckman & Associates also spoke for about 30 minutes about the conversion plans.

Phillip Oyler of Independence accused the city commission and city staff of “misleading the public in the last few weeks . . . not to get a healthcare facility but to get an office for city employees.”

Oyler suggested that the commission create a citizen advisory board that would be used to create a healthcare solution for Independence. He also suggested the development of a regional healthcare cooperative as a way generate sustainable medical activity in the Independence community.

Rusty Baker, fire chief, admitted that the hospital-turned-city office was “not the perfect fix” but would go far into rectifying the problems now experienced at the existing City Hall.

“The question is if you are going to spend the money to rectify
the things that you have going on in City Hall or if you are going to spend money on a hospital, then where will it do the most good,” said Baker. “That’s the decision you have to make.”

Baker also spoke about the problems of storing existing firetrucks outdoors because of the lack of space at the existing City Hall. He also said the height constraints of the existing firetruck bays at the City Hall require the City of Independence to special order new or pre-owned firetrucks with a shorter truck frame.

Debbie Miller of Independence provided the most pointed criticism of the conversion plans.

“Why does a community, with its overwhelming financial challenge need a gargantuan Taj Mahal City Hall?” she asked.

Miller also suggested why the commission or city staff had not considered the recommendations of a 2012 feasibility study that evaluated the existing space within City Hall.

Miller also directed criticism toward Webb, who she said sought a local architect to prepare the conversion plans without proper authorization from the city commission. Miller told the commission that Webb should be removed from his position.

Terry Hatfield, a retired Independence pastor, compared the loss of Mercy Hospital to the loss of a loved one. The grieving process after the loss of a loved one requires time to overcome. The commission should not rush through the grieving process with what appears to be a hastily-made plan for relocating City Hall to the former Mercy Hospital.

“In the same way you don’t rush a person with grief, you shouldn’t rush a community through grief,” said Hatfield. “What’s the rush? Why can’t we save it (the hospital) for further medical use?”

Hatfield also said he felt local residents have lost their collective confidence in the city commission and city staff with the release of the municipal office plan.

Don Moore of Independence said he felt “betrayed” when he heard the news of the plans to convert the hospital into city office.

“When I heard the news, there is something that went from my heart to the bottom of my feet,” said Moore. “Just in last month, we had a city manager that, in my mind, no doubt had a plan to make this happen.”

Moore said the commission’s top priority is to create a plan whereby the now-closed Mercy Hospital can be used by some other medical provider to provide healthcare for the community.

Moore also told commissioners that Webb should removed from his position.

Louis Ysusi of Independence said the lack of transparency on the part of city commissioners has lost the “trust and confidence of the people who elected you.”

“This idea to make city offices out of Mercy Hospital came out of nowhere,” he said. “And because all of this is discussed away from the public, it causes the public to question this process.”

Mayor Leonhard Caflisch did not provide many details of the process by which city staff prepare an architectural study concerning the conversion of Mercy Hospital into municipal offices. However, he said the situations that befell the commission where an ongoing set of circumstances stemming from Mercy Hospital’s closure in October.

“One year ago, we never thought in our wildest imaginations that we would be put in this situation that we now face,” Caflisch said of the absence of hospital care in the Independence community.

“The city manager has tried to present an idea of ‘what if’,” said Caflisch. “As a city commission, this is still a ‘what if’ option.”

With prodding from commissioner Fred Meier, Caflisch directed residents to keep their comments focused on the conversion plans while staying away from personnel matters and personalities — an obvious attempt to curtailing the public’s open criticism of Webb. That brought several jeers of “no, no, no” from the more than 100 people who packed into the Independence Civic Center to view the meeting.

Also at the meeting, attorney Tim Emert, who was present due to the absence of city attorney Jeff Chubb, nodded in head in affirmation when the commission was asked if Mercy Health System was stipulating how the former hospital could be used by the City of Independence. At the request of Emert, commissioners chose not discuss details of the negotiations publicly, saying they were bound by confidentiality agreements to prohibit the open discussion of their negotiations with Mercy Health System.

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UPDATE: City of Independence to negotiate donation of Mercy Hospital

AN UPDATE TO THE STORY THAT APPEARS ON PAGE A1 OF THIS WEEK’S MONTGOMERY COUNTY CHRONICLE . . . .

Independence city commissioners on Tuesday night voted 2-1 to proceed with negotiations with Mercy Health System concerning the donation of Mercy Hospital to the City of Independence.

Commissioners Fred Meier and Gary Hogsett voted in favor of the motion while Mayor Leonhard Caflisch voted against the measure.

The commission’s decision came after commissioners heard pleas from more than one dozen citizens — most of whom spoke against the City of Independence’s plan to convert a portion of Mercy Hospital into municipal offices.

Commissioners made the decision after conferring with attorneys for 20 minutes in executive session, which is closed to the press and public.

Tuesday’s meeting was the first time the proposed hospital-turned-City Hall plan was discussed openly and publicly. Commissioners had to render a decision on Tuesday because Mercy Health System had imposed a deadline of Nov. 30 for the City to accept or reject the donation of the hospital property.

If the City of Independence had rejected the donation, then Mercy Hospital would have demolished the entire structure, said city manager Micky Webb.

Complete details of Tuesday’s meeting will be posted on this Facebook page and Montgomery County Chronicle website (www.taylornews.org). Because this week’s Chronicle (dated Nov. 26) was published just hours prior to Tuesday’s meeting, details of the meeting will not be contained in it.

Read a previous post to learn the City of Independence’s complete plan to transform a portion of Mercy Hospital into a municipal office complex.

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Mercy proposes to donate hospital to City of Indy

BY ANDY TAYLOR
chronicle@taylornews.org

INDEPENDENCE — The Independence community’s conversation about the changing state of local healthcare shifted this week when city manager Micky Webb and Mercy Hospital interim chief executive officer Kim Day announced a proposal to convert a portion of Mercy Hospital into municipal offices.

The proposal calls for Mercy Hospital to donate the newest portions of Mercy Hospital, including the 1995 addition that contained the bulk of the hospital rooms, to the City of Independence. Mercy will be responsible for demolishing the two oldest portions of the hospital, including the often-called “round tower” portion. Upon the footprint of those demolished wings will be construction of a 19,000-square-foot addition that will be used to house the City of Independence’s fire and EMS vehicles as well as other vital heavy equipment used by the City.

If the Webb plan comes to fruition, then virtually all city services will be contained under one roof, thereby eliminating the need for the City of Independence to use its existing City Hall at 6th and Myrtle streets, EMS services office at 5th and Main streets and the public works buildings at 10th and Railroad streets. Webb said he could envision city offices relocating to the current hospital property by January 2017.

The Independence City Commission was expected to hear the issue at a special meeting Tuesday night. Because of the Montgomery County Chronicle’s press deadline mid-afternoon Tuesday, the details of the story could not be contained in this edition. However, the Chronicle will have an update via its Facebook page later Tuesday.

The proposal already has received an architect’s touch as Sean Clapp of Heckman & Associates has developed a preliminary set of schematic diagrams showing the transformation of the hospital area into municipal offices.

Clapp joined Day and Webb in giving a media tour of the proposed hospital-turned-municipal offices on Monday. Here is a brief breakdown of the proposed plans:

• the current emergency department entrance facing Laurel Street will be transformed into the main entrance for the new Independence City Hall. Upon entering the front entrance, City Hall visitors will be greeted by a dispatching center and a hallway that will lead to the municipal court clerk office, city commission chambers/court room and offices for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation. Those offices will occupy the footprint of the hospital’s surgical wing and waiting room.

• the area that was used by Mercy for its emergency department will be leased to Jane Phillips Medical Center to use for its imaging and laboratory services. Jane Phillips Medical Center, through its parent company, St. John Health System, has plans to establish a primary care clinic on Mercy property. Because those plans call for Mercy to donate its existing imaging equipment to St. John and because that imaging equipment is currently contained within the Mercy property, it would be difficult to move that equipment to the Jane Phillips clinic offices.

The Jane Phillips Medical Center imaging and laboratory services would have a public entrance that faces now-closed 14th Street.

• The second floor of the hospital, which held its birth center, regular patient rooms, and intensive care unit, would be converted into city offices with minimal remodeling required, Clapp said.

Police offices would be housed in the former birth center while fire department dormitory rooms, training rooms, and living area would occupy the regular hospital rooms. The intensive care unit would be converted into administrative offices, including offices for the city manager, assistant city manager, city clerk, financial office, and customer service staff.

Other rooms on the second floor would be used by the city’s building inspector, Independence Housing Authority, public works director, and water plant operator.

The basement would largely be used for storage area for all municipal offices. However, a portion of the basement would be converted into a crime laboratory for the Independence Police Department. Home Town Health Services, which took over Mercy’s home health program, would occupy a space in the basement for office and equipment purposes.

The price tag

Preliminary estimates for converting the hospital areas into municipal offices would be about $4 million. Of that total cost, more than $2 million would be needed to construct the apparatus bays serving the EMS, fire and public works departments, Webb said.

The $4 million price tag does not include Mercy’s own costs to demolish the round tower and oldest portions of the hospital.
To pay for those remodeling costs, Webb has several funding sources that, he claims, could be used, including:

• the City of Independence’s application for a Community Development Block Grant, also known as a CDBG, which is administered through the Kansas Department of Commerce. The maximum amount awarded would be $400,000 with the City of Independence having to match that grant with $100,000.

• New Market Tax Credits, which is a federally-allowed tax incentive program, that is triggered when a rural health facility is maintained and used for health purposes. Because a portion of the hospital would be leased to Jane Phillips Medical Center for its imaging and laboratory services, hope exists that the City of Independence could capitalize on the availability of New Market Tax Credits, which are sold to investors for a return investment.

• possible other financial donations through Mercy Health System. Webb said he was in negotiation with Mercy to obtain more financial assistance in the conversion of the former hospital into city offices. No agreement has been officially reached about the measure or scope of those financial contributions, he said.

How did we get here?

Mercy Hospital closed its doors to admissions-based patients and the emergency department in early October. In the months before and after the hospital’s closure, Mercy attempted to strike a deal with several medical providers, including Coffeyville Regional Medical Center, St. John Health System and Labette Health, to occupy some aspect of the hospital building.

In late October, Mercy announced it would deal exclusively with St. John Health System, a fellow Catholic-based medical non-profit entity. However, St. John has no plans to run a hospital in Independence. Instead, it plans to operate a primary care clinic and urgent care in other buildings (St. John would still need to use Mercy’s existing imaging equipment, which, because of its size and bulk, will remain intact inside the former hospital).

That left Mercy with no other option but to consider giving the building to the City of Independence, Day said.

“It seems to be a natural fit,” Day said of the possible conversion of hospital space into municipal offices.

Should the Independence City Commission not agree to take possession of the hospital property, then Mercy will have no other option but to demolish the entire hospital structure, Day said.

“It’s not Mercy’s plan to board up the hospital and leave it as an eyesore for the community,” he said.

Mercy is operating under a tight deadline concerning the future use of the hospital. It can no longer provide the funds to heat and cool a nearly-vacant property. Day said Mercy’s chief officials gave him a Dec. 31 deadline to end all services and functions in Independence, including the use of the hospital building. Only a skeleton crew of Mercy employees remain in the former hospital building.

Before Mercy can demolish the round tower and older portion of the hospital, it has to remove and remediate asbestos now contained in those older portions of the hospital. That could take several months, he said. The goal is to have the asbestos removed and the older portions of the hospital gone by June 30, 2016.

Not only does Day have to contend with deadlines, he also has to make plans for the thousands of pieces of medical equipment and other furnishings within Mercy’s properties in Independence. Some of the equipment and furniture will be offered to the City of Independence to use in their municipal offices and services, Day said.

The need

Webb said the need for better municipal offices has never been made more obvious than in the past year. The existing City Hall, which has about 22,000 square feet of space at Myrtle and 6th streets, is no longer able to support most modern technology infrastructures. And, it suffers from outdated and neglected infrastructures, such as water, sewer and electrical systems.

Dormitory space for firefighters is unsafe, inefficient and not conducive to having separate sexes.

Firetrucks have to be ordered to a specific size because of the limited height in the existing firetruck bay.

A crime lab in the basement has a sink that drains directly onto the floor of an adjacent room.

“It’s long past time for us to do something about our existing city offices,” he said. “Not only are they inefficient, but we’ve concluded that the costs to remodel the existing City Hall would be cost prohibitive. It would take considerable amount of money — and a even more considerable disruption of our services — to remodel our offices.”

Building a new municipal complex would cost anywhere from $8 million to $10 million, he said.

As an architect, Clapp has studied City Hall thoroughly and noted that it had outlived its use.

“Any money we pour into the existing structure is like pouring money down the drain,” he said.

Webb said Day made the offer for the City to accept the hospital donation several weeks ago. It has been discussed by city staff and city commissioners in executive sessions, which are closed to the press and public, under the guide of “healthcare negotiations.”

Should City Hall relocate to Mercy Hospital, then there could be several options for City Hall, including making it available to prospective apartment developers or make it available to Montgomery County because of the building’s proximity to the Montgomery County Courthouse.

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Independence City Commission rejects St. John proposal, opens future talks to area medical providers

BY ANDY TAYLOR
chronicle@taylornews.org

INDEPENDENCE — Healthcare coverage is now wide open for the Independence community after Independence city commissioners, in an agonizing 90 minute meeting on Friday, rejected a plan by a Tulsa-based health system to assume some of Mercy Hospital’s services in 2016.

The 2-1 decision to reject a three-year plan by St. John Health System was followed by the commission’s unanimous decision to open negotiations with interested medical providers — including Wilson County Medical Center in Neodesha, Neosho Regional Medical Center in Chanute, Coffeyville Regional Medical Center, Labette Health in Parsons and even St. John Health System — to open an urgent care or emergency department in Independence.

However, commissioners admitted that prospects would be slim that St. John Health System would be willing to entertain another proposal for Independence healthcare coverage.

Commissioners also emphasized they are fighting the clock because Mercy Hospital has previously indicated it would cease all clinics and services in Independence by Dec. 31. Mercy Hospital officials in early September indicated they would negotiate solely with St. John Health System, which owns Jane Phillips Medical Center in Bartlesville, for an assumption of Mercy’s clinics and related services in 2016. This would include the Cancer Center of Kansas, the Mercy Pharmacy, the Mercy Health For Life, and primary care clinics in Independence and Cherryvale. At the time Mercy made its announcement, the city commission voted to negotiate with Mercy and St. John Health System with the City’s offer of $3 million as an economic development incentive thrust into the mix.

It’s not yet known how Mercy will respond to the city commission’s decision or if the Missouri-based Catholic charity will stay firm with its timeline to close remaining services by the end of the year. A call to a Mercy spokesperson was not returned by the time of this posting on Friday afternoon.

Friday’s special city commission meeting was the first time the commission was able to publicly discuss any aspect of the negotiations between the commission, Mercy and St. John. Commissioners did reveal some details of those negotiations, including:

• Mercy Hospital dictated the conditions of the negotiations, including the provision that Mercy negotiate with only one party, which was St. John Health System.

• Mercy dictated that the negotiations be held confidentially. Discussions at city commission meetings were held in executive session, which are closed to the public and press.

The city commission picked a healthcare negotiation committee to handle those discussions not only with St. John but in previous discussions between Mercy and Coffeyville Regional Medical Center (the Mercy-CRMC talks broke off in early September, which caused Mercy to announce it would close its hospital and emergency department in October). Those committee members included city manager Micky Webb, city commissioner Fred Meier, city attorney Jeff Chubb and Mercy Hospital board chairman Jim Kelly.

• St. John, which operates primary care clinics in Coffeyville and Caney, offered to assume some of Mercy’s medical services in 2016, including operation of primary care clinics, Mercy Health for Life, the Mercy Pharmacy, and the Cancer Center of Kansas. St. John Health System also planned to operate an expanded urgent care but not an emergency department in the short term. A long-term vision, but not a contractual obligation, called for creation of an emergency department.

• St. John’s proposal was on a three-year term. The corporation asked the City of Independence to guarantee the company’s profit by assuming an annual loss of no more than $750,000 each year for three years. That would mean St. John would receive $2,250,000 in taxpayer funds over a three-year period. It was not known if St. John would accept the $3 million economic development offer and apply it to that yearly profit guarantee or if it would have been in addition to the $2,250,000 it was seeking.

While St. John was in discussions with Mercy and the City of Independence, Labette Health of Parsons also presented a preliminary proposal to the City of Independence to establish an emergency department in Independence. No action was taken on the Labette Health proposal.

Labette Health already operates an urgent care center in Independence and has offices for its visiting physicians from Parsons. Labette Health also operates a primary care clinic in Cherryvale.

However, Friday’s meeting was not held to decide the better of two different proposals. Because the city commission had previously announced it would negotiate a healthcare plan for the community, the meeting was held to decide solely whether to accept or reject the St. John plan.

For Commissioner Gary Hogsett, who voted against the St. John proposal, the question of whether to accept Oklahoma-based charity’s proposal was an issue of fairness. He said St. John made an unacceptable proposal by requiring city taxpayers to pay $750,000 per year for three years to guarantee its profits. He reminded audience members and fellow commissioners and city staff that St. John Health System is owned by Ascension, which is the world’s largest Catholic medical charity.

“I cannot vote to allow taxpayers to cover the losses for a billion dollar corporation,” said Hogsett.

Hogsett said he understands that most business ventures go through losses in their first years of operation. However, he said other local medical providers have not stretched out their hands to seek taxpayers’ money. He cited several medical providers, including a local dentist, chiropractor, a family practice physician, and an optometrist who dispense healthcare without asking for a single penny from city coffers.

Mayor Leonhard Caflisch, who joined Hogsett in rejecting the St. John plan, said he had concerns with the lack of local input in the St. John plan and in the negotiations in general. He said St. John, by virtue of being owned by a non-profit corporation that is based in St. Louis, Mo., would likely not include the concerns of local citizens in its operations in Independence. He said he felt the future needs of the Independence community would best be handled by an organization that allows for local decision making.

“The decisions of St. John will be made by Ascension,” said Caflisch. “I feel this is a matter where we as a community need to control our destiny. I don’t see that in the St. John proposal.”

Casting the lone vote in favor of the St. John plan was Commissioner Fred Meier, who was on the city’s negotiation team. Meier said the St. John proposal would have provided the community with basic medical services while also assuming some of the services that Mercy patients and customers have been accustomed to using, such as the Mercy Pharmacy and the Mercy Health for Life.

However, Meier said that he, too, had problems with St. John’s requirement that the City of Independence write off the company’s losses by contributing up to $750,000 each for three years.

The fact that a major medical provider like St. John sees a need to get public dollars into the mix only verifies that the future healthcare choices for the community will be dictated by the need for taxpayer money, Meier said.

“To be honest, healthcare in Independence will not be cheap,” he said. “For us to have quality healthcare, we are going to have to spend money.”

Following the commission’s rejection of the St. John plan, commissioners entered into a lengthy discussion about how to proceed. All three commissioners had separate visions. Meier proposed that the commission adopt the proposal put forward by Labette Health at a special meeting last week. However, Hogsett said he was not willing to address the Labette Health proposal without fully studying the proposal. He also said he believed the commission should avail themselves to other medical providers who have expressed an interest in the Independence market.

“I think we need to look at our neighbors and get them involved in the process,” said Hogsett.

Hogsett said Coffeyville Regional Medical Center had reached out to him in recent weeks about the possibility of healthcare coverage for Independence. Wilson Medical Center in Neodesha also has made a similar inquiry, and Labette Health has made a proposal to the commission at a previous meeting.

Meanwhile, Caflisch said he was looking for a medical provider that could bring an emergency department, which is one of the priorities set forth by the commission when Mercy Hospital announced its closure plans in early September. He also said he believed opening talks with other medical providers would free the City of the constraints that Mercy Hospital had placed on the negotiations with a sole provider (St. John Health System), which Mercy Hospital picked because of its Catholic affiliation.

In the end, Hogsett and Caflisch were adamant that future discussions involve area medical providers. Meier expressed reluctance in the process, saying it could take considerable time to make a decision when reviewing the proposals.

“Voting in favor of this is going against my better judgment . . . but I feel we are a team,” he said.

Commissioners directed city staff to notify St. John of the vote to reject their plan and also extend an opening to area medical providers to discuss healthcare plans for Independence.

Prior to the commission’s discussions and votes, they heard concerns from several Independence residents. Many of the residents spoke of the need to continue the Cancer Center of Kansas, which is located in a Mercy facility.

Other residents spoke of the need to have public input in the discussions.

Brian Williams, Labette Health chief executive officer, also spoke briefly about the Parsons-based hospital and its plans for Independence.

After the meeting, Williams said that as part of the Labette Health proposal, Labette Health would guarantee a placement of an Independence resident on its governance board to assure local input in its decisions.

No persons from St. John Health System or Jane Phillips Medical Center in Bartlesville spoke at Friday’s meeting.

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Hospital merger discussions cease

BY ANDY TAYLOR
chronicle@taylornews.org

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 reaction

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.

Congressional reaction

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.

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