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Turnaround success story for North Sunflower Med Center

Closure was imminent. Only a matter of days remained before the doors to North Sunflower Medical Center (NSMC) would shut tightly. And the last one out would turn out the lights.

Ruleville would have been without a hospital and yet another Delta community would be left without intensive medical treatment.

But those lights stayed on and the doors remained open. A Herculean effort that included a long, hard look at the community hospital’s business plan saved the 60-bed facility.

“We were down to seven days,” recalls Sam Miller, NSMC’s chief operating officer and a radiation technologist. “We wear many hats, here,” he explains of his multiple responsibilities.

“We have come from the doors closing to being in better shape than we’ve ever been,” says Cherri Rickels, director of nursing.

“Everything was going down from 1997 to 2004,” says Brad Cooper, director of the swing bed ward. Employees were asked to make some sacrifices, agreeing to work longer hours without overtime pay was one concession, to help keep the hospital open.

Cooper and Rickels show off the new remodeled rooms on the ward. The décor, amenities like high-definition TV and pleasant surroundings could be in virtually any modern hospital in the nation.

Outside in the hall, laminated hardwood flooring adds warmth and takes the institutional edge off the facility. A cheery atmosphere and pride are palpable at NSMC.

“In the late 1990s and early 2000s,” recounts Sunflower County supervisor Barry Bryant, “it was the lowest of the low. It was losing money year after year.

“We had to come up with money to keep it open, but now it supports itself.”

In 2004, the Board of Supervisors, which oversees operation of the hospital, hired Billy Marlow as chief executive officer. A Ruleville native, Marlow harbored a long allegiance to the facility.

“I was born in this hospital,” Marlow relates, “and I’m a lifelong resident of Ruleville.”

Marlow did not have a medical background, though he did serve on the hospital board. His other activities included real estate development and catfish production.

He says that in fiscal years 2002 and 2003, NSMC lost $1.6 million. By 2004, the hemorrhaging was decreased to a loss of $300,000; 2005 saw a profit of $720,000. Climbing steadily upward, 2006 ended $800,000 to the good and 2007 posted a whopping $2.7-million profit.

“For 2008,” Marlow states, “we’re hoping to hold that steady.” From the previous 180 employees, NSMC now employs 270.

Several important changes were made to effect the turnaround. Probably the most important was being designated a Critical Access Hospital in October 2004. Prior to that, it was a “regular acute hospital” since being built in 1954, says Marlow.

The CAH designation allows Medicare payments for cost of services plus 1%. The NSMC patient load is 84% Medicare recipients: “We’re left on our own for the other 16%,” says Marlow.

“That’s where the growth came in.”
It was necessary to expand its services to draw more revenue to the facility. Home healthcare turned out to be a lucrative arena. NSMC held a license to provide home health services in 11 counties, but was only operating in one.

Today, the home health element has expanded to four counties and counts 350 patients.

Another growth area was the outpatient Rural Health Clinic that was formerly, according to Marlow, “in the back of the hospital, out of sight and out of mind.” Approximately 120 patients a month sought treatment there.

The clinic was moved into a building at the front of the campus, where it enjoys good visibility and is easily accessed. It now treats 1,600 people per month.

Although many community hospitals return a portion of revenue to the counties and/or municipalities that owns them, NSMC is not yet able to do that. “We still have a lot of debt,” says Marlow. “We have bond issues from long before I got here.”

“We most definitely have better health in the area with the hospital here,” says Supervisor Bryant, explaining that a wellness center is in the works. “We’ve been through the ups and down, but we’re definitely going in the right direction now.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer C. Richard Cotton at rcotton4@earthlink.com .

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