After living without local emergency medical care for over four years, residents in Patrick County are being told their hospital, closed since September 2017, will reopen by early next year.
At the same time, residents in Martinsville and Henry County are finding their healthcare offerings being curtailed or deferred elsewhere.
In April, Foresight Hospital and Health Systems with corporate offices in Chicago announced that it had purchased the former Pioneer Community Hospital property on Jeb Stuart Highway in Stuart.
The Patrick County online geographic information system still lists Patrick County Real Estate LLC as the owner of the 10 acre campus with a total assessed value of over $4.5 million, but Foresight CEO Sameer Suhail said in February his company had purchased the property for $2.1 million from Virginia Community Capital, the former hospital’s creditor.
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“The plan is to have the emergency room wing back open by Jan. 31,” said Patrick County Director of Economic Development Sean Adkins. “Within the first week of putting up a help wanted sign they already have over 100 applications, and 65 to 70 of those are from nurses, one of the toughest employment obstacles out there right now.”
A newsletter earlier this month from the Patrick County Chamber of Commerce announced that the hospital facility had been sold to a new healthcare provider, but “much more work lies ahead in getting the facility up and running to provide services.”
“I’ve been working with Foresight closely for months now and everything I’ve seen gives me reason to feel optimistic,” Adkins said. “They are energetic and have a focused approach to this project. I’m impressed.”
Pioneer Health Services of Mississippi previously owned the hospital, but after the company declared bankruptcy the hospital in Stuart stopped serving the community.
The hospitals nearest to Patrick County are in Martinsville and Mount Airy, North Carolina, and Congressman Morgan Griffith (R-Salem) told the Bulletin during an April visit to Henry County that he had secured $600,000 in federal funding for a mobile medical unit for Patrick County.
“The funds are on the way,” said Adkins. “We already have one unit in operation, and this is for a second unit.”
While the mobile units do provide life-saving health care to the patients they serve and relief for first responders, they are not capable of offering the same level of care that a hospital does.
In Virginia, a facility eventually loses its license to be a hospital if it remains closed long enough, and the building on Jeb Stuart Highway was on the brink of reaching expiration until a bill introduced by House of Delegates newcomer Wren Williams (R-Stuart) was passed by both chambers and signed into law by Gov. Glenn Youngkin on April 7, securing the use of the facility as an acute care and critical access hospital.
“Since our Patrick County hospital closed in 2017, we continue to live day after day without a hospital or even a vital emergency room in our community,” Williams stated in a release after Youngkin had signed the bill. “In a health emergency, seconds matter and our nearest emergency room is over 30 minutes away in Martinsville. The transport time has also strained our EMS volunteers to their limits.
“Our community desperately needs a local hospital and emergency room. Passing this bill is a huge step towards reopening our Patrick County hospital. It cuts through the red tape and makes it more attractive for a provider to come in and re-open our hospital and emergency room.”
Healthy Patrick County, an advisory group established by the West Piedmont Health District in 2020, initially determined reopening the hospital would not be successful because the existing one would cost too much to repair and a new one would cost to much to build.
A study, funded with a $50,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission, concluded telehealth services should be implemented to relieve the strain, but the lack of broadband in the rural area raised questions about its feasibility.
Suhail did not respond to a request by the Bulletin for comment, but on its website, Foresight lists as its mission to “provide high-quality health care services to underserved rural and urban communities, while changing the landscape of health care service delivery and accessibility.”
“This past week they came here and blitzed the community with meetings, talking face-to-face with the community,” said Adkins. “That closed building has been a sore thumb and a black eye for years and to finally take the for sale sign down and put banners up and with the work getting started, people can believe this is really happening.”
Adkins said the meetings between Foresight officials and community stakeholders went a long way toward building the trust necessary to get everyone on board.
“They plan to hold community meetings twice monthly, create an advisory board and an ethics board so everyone will have full faith in this,” Adkins said. “There was a clear emphasis that we’ve got to start with an emergency room, and they fully bought in.”
Adkins said the initial plan is to open with five to 10 beds and expand critical care access eventually to 25 beds.
Maternity in Martinsville
While efforts are underway to retool the shuttered hospital in Patrick County, on May 2 Sovah Health discontinued its labor and delivery unit in Martinsville.
Dr. Makunda Abdul-Mbacke of Piedmont Women’s Healthcare in Ridgeway met with Griffith at her office on April 12 to address her concerns of declining medical care offered in rural areas in general and specifically to women.
Mbacke said the hospital had sent notice on April 11 to “all Sovah Health Employees, Physicians and Volunteers,” saying “We are working closely with impacted employees in our OB unit to assist them during this transition and it is our hope that all staff will apply and be placed in open positions at our Martinsville or Danville campuses.”
Mbacke said that while the curtailment of services was unfortunate, the need had been declining for years as the population of the region Sovah serves continues to become older.
Mbacke explained that a viable delivery unit needs to deliver about 500 babies a year, and in the month before only two babies had been delivered at Sovah in Martinsville by a paid, temporary doctor.
Mbacke left Sovah Health-Martinsville last year, continuing to deliver the babies of her patients at UNC Rockingham Health Care in nearby Eden, N.C., but in May she discontinued offering her services there citing the income derived from the dwindling business wasn’t enough to cover the cost of liability insurance.
“I will still do annual exams, STD screening, birth control, and primary care” and helping with menopause, Mbacke wrote the Bulletin on April 13 by email. “We will have a special focus on cancer screening and prevention. I will still do ultrasounds and will be here to help with confirming and diagnosing newly pregnant patients, but after the confirmation they will need [to get] care elsewhere.”
Dr. Tom Berry, a retired Martinsville surgeon, closed his practice after serving in the medical field for over 45 years. He told the Bulletin that he was now concerned about the health of health care for the area.
“In light of the recent news about our hospital here in Martinsville, I am very concerned,” said Berry. “OB services are shut down, hospital employees and physicians are leaving and I’m worried the owners of the hospital are moving towards either phasing the hospital out completely or converting it to an outpatient facility.”
Berry described what he is seeing as a recipe for disaster for the entire community.
“I would urge the Harvest Foundation to initiate a process to re-acquire the hospital from its current owners,” said Berry. “I admit I have no idea if this is feasible, but I hope at least we can start a real conversation about this.”
The Harvest Foundation was created by the sale of what is now Sovah Health-Martinsville in 2002. What originally was Memorial Hospital of Martinsville-Henry County was built with contributions from local residents and businesses, so the proceeds of the sale of the hospital were used to create a charitable foundation that would support the community.
Assets were transferred from Memorial Health System to Harvest Foundation on May 15, 2002, and in its first annual report at the end of that year, the Foundation showed assets totaling $167.7 million. In 2020, the most recent annual report available, those assets have grown to $242 million.
Berry said when he retired in 2010 he turned in his license to practice and although he has kept in touch with some physicians who became personal friends, his knowledge of current hospital practices were limited to what he sees and his past experience in the profession, and not due to any inside information.
“The change to Sovah occurred after I got out,” said Berry. “It was LifePoint before I quit, but I never had any impression with LifePoint that they cared for anything other than short-term profits. I can’t prove it, but with the shifting of services to Danville, they’ve moved half of the lab work to Danville, and while they say it’s temporary I see no intention of them bringing it back.”
Sovah Health’s website describes itself as a member of LifePoint Health, a for-profit hospital network headquartered in Brentwood, Tennessee.
Berry said he decided to speak out in order to help create public awareness but has no particular confidence it would cause any change.
“I am totally out of the political scene and I live in Franklin County,” Berry said. “But I’ve never been satisfied with LifePoint’s relationships with its employees or the medical staff. Dr. Caren Aaron is leaving and Dr. [Jim] Isernia has left.
Confirmation of Aaron leaving had not been obtained by the Bulletin on Friday, but she is no longer listed on Sovah’s directory of physicians and the location of her office on Hospital Drive only features Nurse Practitioner Lyndsey McAlexander as the provider for that location.
“I think very strongly about our hospital. It provided my livelihood for 28 years, but we’ve got the Move to Martinsville campaign going and if we don’t have a hospital it’s a hard sell.”
The American Hospital Directory (AHD) provides data, statistics, and analytics about more than 7,000 hospitals nationwide.
The AHD lists Pioneer Community Hospital, formerly R.J. Reynolds Patrick County Memorial Hospital, as having closed on Sept. 20, 2017. Its last report showed $20.9 million in patient revenue, but a loss of $2.8 million with 25 beds and 326 discharges.
LifePoint reports their data for Martinsville and Danville combined and in its most recent report on June 8, 2017 showing 330 total beds, 11,571 discharges and $1.5 billion in patient revenue. Net income was $46.4 million over the combined Sovah campuses.
By comparison, AHD shows Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital’s latest report of Sept. 30 with 722 beds, 25,046 discharges, $4.5 billion in patients revenue and $329.2 million in net income.
Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center has 886 beds and lists 39,025 discharges, $7.1 billion in patient revenue and $3.8 million in net income in its most recent report on Oct. 9, 2020.
Woody McCain is a retired educator and a board member of the local Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE). He was also a patient of Dr. James Isernia who was unceremoniously fired by Sovah Health for alleged improprieties. Sovah filed its grievance with the state Medical Board and Isernia filed suit against Sovah for wrongful termination after the Board cleared him of the allegations.
“I’m wondering why our city and county leaders plus the Harvest Foundation and the Economic Development Corporation have not stepped up to the plate,” wrote McCain on April 20 on a Facebook page for former patients and supporters of Isernia. “Surely they care about our area’s future, or do they?”
Both City Council and the Henry County Board of Supervisors have sent letters to Sovah Health-Martinsville CEO Spencer Thomas asking for a dialogue to gain an understanding of the future intentions of the hospital’s owner.
If a response to either of those letters has been made, neither the City nor the County has made it public.
But Thomas did respond to questions posed by the Bulletin in April.
“Sovah Health continuously evaluates the services we provide across our health system to ensure we are operating as effectively as possible and that the care we provide is reflective of what our community needs,” Thomas wrote. “As part of this effort, we assessed our obstetrics care model and found that the demographics and needs of our community have changed and deliveries have declined by 60 percent at our Martinsville campus since 2015. Therefore, we are implementing temporary changes while we work to create a new delivery model for OB care between Sovah’s two hospital campuses.”
“I am beginning to think that we’re really getting ready to go on life support; that our better times are behind us and that our options are rapidly diminishing,” wrote McCain.
Said Berry: “This thing of closing maternity is a pretty big deal. The whole thing of having to travel, of having to defer to someone else… I’m very suspicious. Danville is bigger than Martinsville and my best guess is that it’s all about profit and number of procedures.”
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Bill Wyatt is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. He can be reached at 276-591-7543. Follow him @billdwyatt.