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Jackson doctors fear underdog status in MedWest venture

When a team of moving men showed up in the surgery suite of MedWest-Harris two years ago and rolled a specialized spinal surgery table out the door, down the hallway and into a truck, acting on orders to haul the half-million operating table back over the mountain to the hospital in Haywood County, news that Harris’ equipment was being raided by its sister hospital on the other side of the mountain spread like wildfire through the halls of doctors’ offices in Jackson County.

“That was one of the first inklings we had that Haywood was going to get preferential treatment,” said Dr. Randy Savell, a Gastrointerologist at Harris. “‘We’re taking from you and giving to your big brother.’ That’s how it came across.”

The hospitals in Haywood and Jackson were a mere three months in to a joint venture at the time. The premise: working together the two hospitals would be stronger than going it alone.

But, stripping the spine table from Harris’ operating room quickly became a large-than-life symbol of the struggle for Jackson County doctors to hang on to their autonomy under the new MedWest banner.

SEE ALSO: Caught in the crosshairs: Doctors struggle for footing in a shifting health care landscape

“That was a big dust up,” said Dr. Waverly Green, a pulmonologist at Harris. But he didn’t immediately climb on the anti-MedWest train.

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“I think it hit different people at different times,” Green said. “Over the first year, it was like ‘Are they really trying to slight us and build up Haywood?’ Or are we perceiving a chain of events that way because of our own set of goggles we were viewing this from?”

From a different set of goggles, moving the spine table made sense. Harris didn’t do spinal surgery. It had no spinal specialists. Instead, neurosurgeons from Mission Hospital in Asheville would travel to Harris twice a month to see patients. If they needed surgery, the patient was almost always sent to Asheville — and Mission raked in the billing for the highly-lucrative procedures.

The spine tabled purchased by Harris aimed to change that, hoping that the right equipment in-house would convince the Asheville doctors not to merely hold office hours in Jackson County but to perform the big-bucks surgeries there as well. In reality, however, less than two dozen spinal surgeries were actually performed at Harris in a year.

Jump to Haywood, where two spine specialists had built a reputable practice during the previous five years. They performed 50 to 60 back surgeries a month.

After the joint venture, it only made sense to quit sending patients and money out the door to Mission and instead keep the business in the MedWest house. So the spinal surgery table was moved to Haywood where the equipment would be put to better use.

But for Harris, it cut off any budding aspiration that it, too, could perform spinal surgeries with regularity one day, not only for the revenue but to serve patients locally.

“That was a major product line we were trying to develop,” said Dr. Gilbert Robinson, an anesthesiologist with Harris for 10 years. “We were doing very valuable services for the community and they quit.”

To Jackson doctors, it begged the larger question: was Harris being set up as an ancillary hospital to Haywood?

For its part, the Haywood medical community does not perceive an underlying tug of war with Jackson but instead sees itself as equal partners.

“We want to have a great relationship with Sylva,” said Dr. Chris Catterson, an orthopedist in Haywood. “We want to help the whole system. That was our goal: to get bigger, to become more financially sound, and to grow. We want all of our hospitals to be successful. That is our goal for the future.”


Musical beds

While moving the spine table to Haywood became a metaphor for the issue, there were other perceived slights as well.

Faced with dwindling patient count, Harris had closed one wing of the hospital about three years ago, cutting down on staff and overhead to reflect the number of patients it was actually serving. But during spikes, when there were suddenly more patients on its doorstep than the reduced staff could care for, Harris had to turn them away.

Dr. Earl Haddock, a longtime cardiologist at Harris, said hospitals should be in the business of treating patients, not turning them away, especially in light of financial struggles at Harris.

“When someone calls to admit a patient, there’s two things you can say and that is ‘Yes, sir,’ or ‘Yes, ma’am.’ Not ‘We don’t have any beds,’” Haddock said.

In reality, Harris had the beds but had maxed out its nurse-to-patient ratio for the night.

“There was no ability to flex. They had cut the staff back to the point they couldn’t take another admission,” Green said.

Meanwhile, it seemed Haywood always had plenty of beds, and the business was sent over the mountain.

While unfortunate, MedWest didn’t intentionally undersize staff at Harris so it could then divert patients to Haywood, according to Steve Heatherly, the president of Harris.

“Are there times when you get an influx of patients at a moment in time and don’t have the staff to handle it? Of course, that is an issue for every hospital,” Heatherly said. “There probably were times when patients were diverted from here to Haywood, and also patients diverted from Haywood to here due to availability of staff or physicians, but that is not part of any master plan.”

Harris now has a contingency plan in place to ramp up staff when need be.


All in the referrals

Allegations of ulterior motives aside, there’s an inescapable fact: Haywood’s medical community offers certain services Harris doesn’t. That was the case even before the MedWest venture.

• One of those areas is spine surgery.

• Another is advanced cardiology services, particularly diagnostic heart catheterizations. The procedure is advanced, but two heart specialists in Haywood perform them routinely. Harris doesn’t.

• A third service line Haywood has but Harris doesn’t is certain types of interventional radiology.

Historically, Harris referred patients needing any of these to Mission.

“People who were sick but not sick enough to need Mission we would handle. Anything we couldn’t handle, we would send to Mission,” said Green, a doctor at Harris.

Under MedWest, however, the question was raised: why not send them to Haywood?

“It was, ‘We don’t want you sending this to Mission if we can keep it in the system,’” Green said.

Legally, hospitals can’t tell doctors where to refer patients. They can ask, suggest and perhaps even gently implore, but they cannot strong-arm doctors into referring patients to a particular hospital or advanced specialist.

MedWest administration indeed asked Jackson doctors to give referrals to Haywood. According to some doctors, MedWest administration went a step further by tracking the referral patterns of their physicians, keeping spread sheets on the number and type of patients a particular doctor referred to Mission for things that could have been treated in system.

On the surface, it rightfully should be the administrator’s business to know where his corporation was losing market share and figure out ways to get it back. Jackson doctors, however, saw it as further evidence they were being asked to help prop up Haywood.

The Haywood doctors likewise asked their counterparts in Jackson — colleague to colleague — to send patients to them if it was something they could treat.

It’s possible the Jackson medical community couldn’t accept the notion that Haywood doctors could treat patients Harris couldn’t, and subconsciously, that’s why they bucked the idea.

That is not the case, however, according to Jackson doctors.

“If we are going to be true to our patients we want them to get the best they can get,” Savell said

Simply put, specialists at Mission do more of the procedures, and in the highly rare event something went wrong, the patient was closer to the emergency intervention they would need. And besides, after refering to Mission for years, they were simply used to working with the particular doctors on the other end of that radiology report or heart diagnosis.


Lonely at the top

As Jackson County doctors began scrutinizing management, attempting to detect whether favoritism was at play, it didn’t help that Jackson’s own CEO was let go when MedWest formed, and the staff at Harris began answering to the CEO from Haywood, Mike Poore. Poore had been promoted to oversee all hospitals under the MedWest system — both Haywood, Harris and Swain. Poore’s finance officer, chief operating officer and chief nursing officer from Haywood also took the reins over the entire system.

Poore’s home base was clearly Haywood, but he regularly made the 25-minute trip over Balsam to work from Harris, parking himself behind the desk of Harris’ departed CEO.

Accounts differ on exactly how much Poore and the other top leaders from Haywood actually made it over to Harris. Some say Poore was there at least two days a week. Whether its was merely their perception, Jackson doctors felt like they were being managed from afar, relegated to the status of a satellite hospital.

“All of a sudden we were saying ‘Gee, where is our representation here?’ The concept was ‘We’ll all be one big happy family, but that medical model didn’t work,’” Haddock said.

Likely, Poore was there more than they realized, based on accounts from one former employee who worked in a nearby office, but as far as Jackson doctors were concerned, their administration wing at Harris seemed empty more often than not. More than merely being irked by it, however, it actually made a difference on the ground, they said.

“If the person you need to ask a question of are in another county and have shown themselves to be unresponsive or aggressive, you don’t seek out help,” Savell said.

Push back from the Jackson medical community ultimately led to Poore being stripped of his position as CEO over MedWest and over Harris in February. Harris was given its own president, namely Steve Heatherly, who had served in various leadership roles, including chief operating officer, chief finance officer and chief strategist for Harris during the past 15 years.

Jackson doctors have responded well to Heatherly’s new leadership role and largely say they have confidence in him to help turn things around. Even Dr. Bob Adams, a spokesman for the disgruntled Jackson doctors, has given Heatherly his blessing.

“I think the WestCare board and Steve Heatherly are doing their best to work with medical staff now,” Adams said.

But, some doctors fear that the move is temporary and that once the Jackson medical community has been placated, Carolinas will return to the ultimate game plan: creating one flagship hospital with the other relegated to a supporting role.

“What does that mean three years or five years from now under MedWest?” Adams asked. “No one will ask the strategic question. Where are we going, how are we getting there and what does it mean?”

Meanwhile, Poore has resigned completely, announcing in early April that he would step down from his role. He has already landed a new job as a hospital administrator in Texas.

The Haywood medical community was dismayed by the news, believing Poore had done a good job and put the hospital on a trajectory for success and primed for a turn-around.

Since Poore’s departure, Carolinas has sent in its own John Young, the vice president of its western region, in a acting role as the CEO of MedWest. Young said few hospital affiliations are seamless.

“To bring different cultures together is always very difficult,” Young said. “But as sticky and difficult as these times are, we know that we will get through it. Organizations do work through these issues.”

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