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Interim MRH CEO meets with public to hear concerns, answer questions

Memorial Regional Health interim CEO Jennifer Riley, left, speaks to a group of area residents about the future of the hospital and questions brought forth by the public as hospital board president Kelly Hepworth, right, looks on.
Eliza Noe / Craig Press

In the first of potentially many public meetings as the new interim CEO of the hospital, Jennifer Riley spoke to a crowd of area residents about the current status and future plans for Memorial Regional Health.

Riley was joined by hospital board chairman Kelly Hepworth, who said on Monday night that the meetings will take a “team approach” when it comes to reaching out for input from the community.

“We want this to be the best hospital that it can be,” Hepworth said. “We want your input, as well. So if you have any questions or concerns (that) you don’t feel comfortable bringing up here, certainly we can get together later one-on-one or with Jennifer. We’d be happy to do that. Contact me. Contact the board members. But certainly, let’s keep this open.”



Staffing

At the meeting, Riley spoke of current staffing updates, including a new Ear, Nose and Throat doctor, a part-time gynecologist who will be able to perform gynecological surgeries and other women’s health services, and more physicians assistants to assist with Rapid Care at the hospital. Riley said that it’s very common for specialized doctors to be part time in rural communities like Craig. In the case of women’s health, that doctor will work two weeks in Craig, and then have two weeks off. For ENT, the newly hired doctor was also looking for a part-time status.

It has also been a focus to bring on more doctors for primary care, Riley said.



“One of the efforts we’ve been making, going forward, is strengthening our access to primary care,” Riley said. “Primary care is really the entry into any health care system. And that’s been an area where we’ve needed to grow, because our patient population has grown. In the last year, we added a new family practice physician (and a family nurse practitioner).”

Riley said there has also been an increased emphasis on emergency care. She said MRH has tried a number of models for its emergency room services — including recruiting new doctors right out of residency — but without support specialists on site, it was an uncertain place for those new doctors. Now, the ER utilizes physicians from CarePoint, an emergency physician group based in Denver. Riley said that eight consistent physicians are employed by MRH.

“We were always struggling with having locums (physicians who work short-term jobs) in the ER, which is not a great way to take care of the community,” she said. “They’re in and they’re out, they’re not engaged and they’re not invested in the community.”

COVID-19

Riley also addressed recent changes in COVID-19 vaccine mandates that will affect the hospital’s policy toward vaccinations. Because of recent changes in federal regulations, MRH will move toward a 100% vaccination rate among its staff — excluding medical and religious exemptions and employees who work remotely. Before the federal mandate, the state required 90% of staff to be vaccinated, and Riley said that MRH at that point had 92% of its staff vaccinated.

“I’ve heard the argument that a mandate isn’t a law. And you’re right, a mandate is not a law until it becomes part of a regulation,” she said. “The state of Colorado issued a mandate that there would be vaccines required for all healthcare personnel. It became a law when the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment put it as part of a regulation. That regulation is what we are subject to as a licensed health care facility.”

That same mandate is now being enforced by the federal offices that control Medicare and Medicaid, which Riley said accounts for 66% of the hospital’s revenue. Without that money, the hospital would not survive.

“If we’re going to bill Medicare or Medicaid, we have to comply with the rules that they set. Those are Conditions of Participation,” she said. “If we choose not to comply with a condition of participation, they can come to us and they could start taking action. First they tell you, ‘Oh, you have to become compliant.’ If you choose not to ultimately follow the condition of participation, they can decide that you’re not going to be able to bill them any longer. We’re just not going to put that at risk.”

The first deadline for a first vaccination dose is Dec. 5, and staff must be fully vaccinated by Jan. 4. While some states have filed lawsuits against it, Colorado has not, and, Riley said, it is in the best interest of MRH to comply with the mandate.

September was the busiest month for MRH, case-wise, Riley said. The hospital fielded over 1,000 visits, with an average of 45 patients coming in every day. Moffat County’s COVID-19 vaccination rate is still around 50%, and the positivity rate — or the percentage of tests that come back positive — was 25%, which is considered a high rate of transmission.

As of Monday night, Riley said there was only one patient at MRH’s COVID unit.

The future of MRH

Some community members at the meeting Monday night expressed skepticism toward the hospital’s new leadership and mentioned the end of obstetrics as an emotional topic still resonating in regard to MRH.

Riley acknowledged the tense relationship some community members feel toward the hospital, and said she wanted to assure the community that though OB is gone, she is going to do her best to make sure MRH can serve the community in every way possible. Riley also said on Monday night that one goal of hers is taking MRH to a four-star status.

“To say I don’t care about this community is just false,” she said. “Now, certainly, I am an assertive leader — I will tell you exactly what I think. And that’s tough. I’m sorry if sometimes it comes off as something like I don’t care, because it couldn’t be further than the truth. I wouldn’t have spent the last 11 years invested here. I’ve given a lot of my own life to this job.”

Riley said these open meetings with the public will happen on a regular basis every four months. She also encouraged attendees to go to this month’s hospital board meeting, which is later this week. As long as people keep coming to the meetings, Riley said, she will keep having them in order to have open dialogue concerning MRH.


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