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Campbell County Hospital Potential Affiliations Fall Through As Community And Commissioners Want More Answers

Campbell County Memorial Hospital in Gillette, Wyoming
Public Domain
Public Domain
Campbell County Memorial Hospital in Gillette, Wyoming

The Campbell County Health Board of Trustees has been working on a potential deal to affiliate the local hospital system with UC Health, a Colorado-based hospital system. The move has caused uproar in the community, with many asking questions about what this could mean for local residents. Wyoming Public Radio's Catherine Wheeler spoke with Board Chair Adrian Gerrits and board member Tom Murphy about the Campbell County Board of Commissioners' recent decision to not move ahead with the deal. Gerrits said it's a move trustees have been discussing for years. He begins by explaining how and why they are considering the affiliation.

Adrian Gerrits: We're really one of the last hospitals in the state to pull the trigger on an affiliation. Almost every other hospital has affiliated with some larger group, including the folks in Riverton and Lander sold their hospital. We really take this really seriously. And we made sure we did our due diligence on what this affiliation looks like, and who we really want to partner with, because there's a whole gamut of what you can get out of an affiliation, right? So there's partnering with a bigger organization. There's all the way to the full buyout of your organization. Our goal with this was to give up as little as possible, and try to get some wins for our hospital. And so we did a lot of due diligence. We met with a lot of different organizations before this came out to the public.

Catherine Wheeler: Tom Murphy, do you have anything to add?

Tom Murphy: As an elected official, we have a fiduciary responsibility to make sure that the hospital is solvent and provides the best health care we can at the lowest possible cost. And that's why the board in the past has looked at affiliation for the last two to three years and have finally come to this decision. It's not something that we just are doing off the cuff in desperate situations. It's something that the past board members have looked at considerably. But we are focused now on UCHealthand are trying to get that affiliation done.

CW: In this context, what would the affiliation mean for Campbell County Health, Tom?

TM: Well, let's say what it's not. I think there's a lot of negativity involved with affiliation. And I think what it's not is a buyout. I, as a trustee, and the other six members, will remain the governing body of the hospital. The patient will still decide where to be treated. The other big part of the affiliation for me and my decision making process to move forward was the electronic medical records that are kept. We are somewhat behind the times in our community in making sure that happens efficiently. So that's probably one of the biggest issues for me to vote for affiliation. And number two is the cost savings.

CW: We can get more into those details. But what is the process you have to go to to make something like this happen? And what has gone on, especially with keeping the county and the public involved?

AG: Anytime you enter into an agreement like this with a large organization, our state statute says we have to get the commissioners approval. We came out publicly with it. And, we made a bit of a mistake at the beginning because we felt like we were answering the questions and speaking as loudly as we could about what it was going to look like, and what we're trying to do. But looking back on it, it turns out, we were speaking to an empty room. And I say that because our town halls, I think we had a total of 25 people show up between the two of them. The digital presence that we should have had was not there. And that's where people get their information nowadays. And I think most of the concerns about the affiliation ended up going to the commissioners. They got all the phone calls, and we got very little so we messed up a little bit on how we brought it to them and how we informed the communities.

CW: The commissioners had a short time to catch up on the issue, on top of receiving a lot of questions and phone calls, and they ended up voting against it. But have you been able to answer the biggest concerns they were left with?

TM: Since that time, a lot of this has been resolved. One of the things was what's in it for UCHealth. To put it succinctly, they get cost, plus 15 percent on any service agreements that they have with us. In other words, they're a business and they're going to make money. The services that they provide will streamline our services for our patients in our hospital. And so that's a win-win for both. And I think the second thing that most people were concerned about was the CEO is employed by UCHealth. And I think there were a lot of people really concerned with that issue. The fact of the matter is that we as trustees decide who the CEO is going to be, and if we are unhappy with the CEO, and how that person is conducting the business of the hospital, so will UCHealth and they will deal with the situation. And then also there was a thought that the CEOs compensation would be paid by UCHealth and that is not true. It will be a pass-through. We still pay for the wages the CEO is entitled to. So I think those two things now that this has been resolved, I think the commissioners and folks that were concerned will be a little more at ease.

CW: I think another important thing to mention is the hospital is facing some hefty budget challenges. How does the affiliation affect that? And there are concerns about what this could mean for taxes for residents?

AG: The budget situation is exactly why we're even looking at this, right? I mean, UCHealth will definitely help us in terms of upping our game as a center of excellence for quality of care, and hopefully, help us with some of our processes with our billing and stuff like that. But the primary reason that rural hospitals are doing this is we just can't go [at] it alone anymore. The cost of IT infrastructure and electronic medical record systems just grows exponentially every year. And with a small hospital, you just don't have the money or the resources to be able to afford something that's going to work for you without partnering with somebody. And the same with expenses. As far as pharmaceuticals, and supplies, we've run some back of the napkin numbers and, we're probably going to save upwards of $2 to 3 million, just on pharmaceutical supplies. And our electronic medical record system, there's no way we could afford it on our own. So the whole reason for affiliation is budget concerns. And in looking forward we're trying to figure it out. We've got big decisions ahead of us and a lot of the things that are unaffordable, or will be unaffordable in the future, we're hoping to offset with an affiliation and gaining some of those cost savings of joining a larger group and getting economies of scale. Just like the county and the city and everybody else is having budget issues we're running into the same thing. For us, I think what a lot of people don't understand is we're a $200 million business being run in the county and we get five percent of our revenue from taxes. And that allows us to try to offer the service lines that are needed in the community, but are not profitable, or even breakeven.

TM: I'm sure that the community doesn't have an appetite for an additional mill for us. So in essence, the affiliation gives us that mill that we're so desperately in need of right now. We have 1,200 workers at our hospital here. And those are primary jobs, probably 70 percent of them are primary jobs, which create two and a half secondary jobs in our community. And so it's really important that you support those in any community within the state. And hopefully, we get through this, as we have in the past. We've seen boom and bust cycles in our community for a number of years and I think this is temporary, I believe it is.

CW: Where do you go from here? I know that the commissioners kind of left the door open for you. Do you feel like it's an option to try again?

AG: We have a work session scheduled for Tuesday, this coming Tuesday with them, again, to just kind of lay out our case and have more discussion and really dive into the agreement and what it looks like and answer concerns. They left the door open, which I really appreciate, they're still open minded to it. And I think the big thing is, we just need to, to help them understand, because I think for almost every trustee on that board on our hospital board, it's a no brainer. It's something we really, really want to move forward with. So, you know, it's our job to make them understand the same things that we do, because they're rational problem solvers, just like we are. So I think we're going to go have this work session with them and see how they feel after that. And if they feel like they still need more information or community input? Well, we'll keep working on it. And if they feel like they've heard enough, and they're comfortable with it, then hopefully, we can ask for a vote from them later on in the month at their regular board meeting.

Catherine Wheeler comes to Wyoming from Kansas City, Missouri. She has worked at public media stations in Missouri and on the Vox podcast "Today, Explained." Catherine graduated from Fort Lewis College with a BA in English. She recently received her master in journalism from the University of Missouri. Catherine enjoys cooking, looming, reading and the outdoors.
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