BY ANDY TAYLOR
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.
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.