By JOSH NICHOLS
Daily Press writer
More than 50 people crowded into the Holiday Inn of Craig's meeting room Thursday night to view a presentation on The Memorial Hospital's plan to convert to a critical access hospital.
The possibility of a new hospital facility was the catalyst that brought many attendees to the meeting. But, despite their concerns about a new facility, most guests left the meeting convinced that critical access is a good thing.
Hospital administrator Randy Phelps said the decision to become critical access was separate from the issue of building a new hospital, but admitted that the additional funding would be nice if the hospital would decide to build.
"I would not say that the notion did not occur to us that this could be a funding mechanism for a new hospital, but I think the board should make a decision independent from plans for a new hospital," Phelps said. "We must be mindful that every month we don't convert, we're lighting $100,000 on fire."
Phelps repeatedly had to remind the audience that the purpose of the meeting was to discuss critical access, not a new hospital.
People left the meeting seemingly satisfied with the plan to go critical access, but still skeptical of the administration and hospital board's tentative plans to build a hospital in the near future.
By converting to critical access, TMH would be eligible for federal funding in the form of cost-based reimbursement for Medicare patients, which would equal close to $1 million in additional annual profit for the hospital. The critical access program was first set up in 1997 to aid small rural hospitals.
Dr. David James spoke on behalf of the medical staff, who voted Tuesday morning in favor of converting to critical access.
"The medical staff was overwhelmingly in favor. There was one vote in opposition," James said. "My conclusion is that signing up for this is basically a no brainer. There's no logic to turning down that money."
James also said that it is important that people keep the issues of converting to critical access and building a new hospital separate.
"It makes sense to put that money in the bank then discuss what we're going to do with it," he said.
Community member Tommy Maneotis questioned the motives behind wanting to convert to critical access.
"All of a sudden we start talking about a new hospital and this comes up," Maneotis said. "Is this being done to entice the public for a new hospital?"
Moffat County Commissioner Les Hampton has followed the issue for close to a year, and said the idea to become critical access has been well investigated.
"At this time last February I didn't think we'd be talking about (critical access) in seven months," he said. "This isn't something that just popped up. Some careful thought has been put into this."
Hampton said two issues people must look at when considering whether it is a good idea to convert to critical access are "Does it affect health care and is it good business?"
As to whether or not $1 million extra dollars a year is good business, he said, "I think you can answer that."
County Commissioner Marianna Raftopoulos also had praise for the work that the hospital board has put into investigating the option of critical access.
"I do want to commend the board for doing this," she said. "They have worked hard on this issue."
Community member Rod Scott was concerned about the possible downside of getting involved in a federal program.
"Are there any strings attached with the feds being involved in this?" Scott asked.
"I've been looking for the trap. There may be a loophole, but I haven't found it," Dr. James said. "We still have a million dollars in the bank even if the federal government took the program away in a year."
Mayor Dave DeRose expressed his concerns about the possible ramifications of becoming a critical access hospital.
Once concern was in regard to the maximum number of 15 patients allowed without having to divert patients to another facility.
"Let's say we have a huge accident at ColoWyo and 20 people were hurt," DeRose said. "Would we have to divert patients? I'm concerned because we have massive industrial services in this community."
Phelps said that because of the number of people on staff, if a disaster occurred, many patients would likely have to be diverted anyway.
The hospital's first job would be to stabilize the patient to whatever level they need to be stabilized, Phelps said.
In response to questions about how converting to critical access would affect the health care of community members, Phelps said people might see improvement in health care.
"This would be totally transparent to the community if it is handled like it should," Phelps said. "In my vision it could be a quality bump forward."
Maneotis was sold on the idea of becoming critical access, but said he and members of the community want a public meeting to be held soon in regard to plans for a new hospital.
"I'm sick and tired of sitting here and hearing 'I don't know.' Don't sit here and say 'I can't answer your questions," he said. "With critical access it seems you're on the right track. You are in favor of this and the doctors are in favor of this, so we have to trust you. But we all have a lot of questions about the new hospital."
After the meeting, Phelps said he understood why prior to the meeting, people had grouped critical access and plans for a new hospital into the same category.
"There was dissent against going forward with critical access," Phelps said. "I wouldn't blame anybody for the linkage."
As far as discussing the new hospital with community in a public meeting, he said it is still not time, but the time is getting close.
"It doesn't make sense to talk about something that is only a vision at this time," he said.
The goal of the board and administration is to approach the community sometime in December, January or February, he said.
Community member Gene Bryant, who had several questions throughout the meeting, seemed in favor of critical access after the meeting.
"I think it's an opportunity that is pretty hard to pass up with the facts we have now," Bryant said.
"I think the meeting went well," said TMH board of trustees secretary Sue Lyster. "The community was well represented tonight."
To go critical access, she said the board had to support the plan, as well as the hospital staff and community.
"We have to look at all of these pieces, then we can vote," she said.