“We Cannot Fail”

By Sarah Naron

Messenger Reporter

CROCKETT – U.S. Congressman and Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Kevin Brady visited the former ETMC Crockett campus on Tuesday, Jan. 23 to pledge his support to members of the Houston County Hospital District (HCHD) and the local area in the ongoing quest to reopen the hospital.

Former U.S. Congressman and Crockett native Jim Turner expressed gratitude for Congressman Brady making the trip from Washington, D.C.

“This is really significant that you be here,” he pointed out. “A lot of people don’t realize the responsibilities that you carry today and what you’ve just been through passing major tax legislation.”

As Turner explained, the hospital was operated under the direction of East Texas Medical Center of Tyler for between 20 and 25 years.

“When that lease ended, East Texas Medical was kind of pulling back some of its satellite hospitals, and that ended,” Turner said.

The HCHD, Turner explained, was left with no choice but to hire a management company in order for the hospital to remain open.

U.S. Congressman and Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Kevin Brady visited the former ETMC Crockett campus on Tuesday, Jan. 23 to pledge his support to members of the Houston County Hospital District (HCHD) and the local area in the ongoing quest to reopen the hospital. Photo by Sarah Naron/ Messenger

“It was a difficult time, but we finally found a partner – at least, we thought we did,” Turner went on. “On Oct. 1, 2016, Timberlands Healthcare – a subsidiary of the Little River Corporation – entered into a lease of 25 years.”

Just nine months after signing the lease, however, Timberlands officials made an unexpected announcement that the hospital would be closing in nine days.

“Nine days later, on June 30 of last year, they closed,” Turner reported. “Two hundred people lost their jobs. The board obviously had no way to keep the hospital open.”

The HCHD immediately began searching for a potential partner for the hospital.

“One of the things that we learned is that because the hospital in Trinity had closed a few months earlier, we were now eligible to be classified as a critical access hospital because we’re 35 miles away from another hospital,” explained Turner.

Following the critical access designation, the HCHD began receiving interest from various hospital systems, including Crockett Medical Center, LLC of Austin. Dr. Kelly Tjelmeland and Dr. Subir Chikara subsequently made a presentation to the board.

“They came to the board with the best proposal, and the board proceeded to negotiate with them,” Turner continued. “They’ve now signed a lease as of Jan. 16.”

As Turner pointed out, a number of events are required to take place before the hospital doors will be able to reopen.

“What we know is that under the normal process, they have to apply for an operating provider number as a general hospital,” explained Turner. “That normally would take 60 to 90 days.”

After obtaining the operating provider number, the next step of the process is applying for critical access status, which involves an additional 60-90 day waiting period.

“Put those two together, and we could be six months away from opening this hospital,” Turner pointed out. “What we’re asking you to see if you can help us do is short-circuit that time frame.”

According to Turner, an ideal situation for the hospital would be immediately applying for critical access status, making it “go in tandem with the general hospital status approval.”

As Turner pointed out, the reopened hospital will “bleed cash” throughout its first six months of operation.

“Fortunately, these gentlemen (Dr. Tjelmeland and Dr. Chikara) have come with their own money and some investor money to cover that – to get us open; to get us where we can start billing and collecting some money from insurance companies and Medicare and Medicaid.”

It is estimated that six months after reopening, if no critical access designation is acquired, the hospital will be faced with a $150,000 deficit each month.

“You know you can’t survive very long with $150,000 out the door every month,” Turner pointed out. “If we get critical access, the projections are that we’ll make $25,000 a month. Nothing great, but enough to keep the doors open and something to build on.”

As Turner pointed out, Dr. Tjelmeland and Dr. Chikara saw a great deal of potential in the hospital.

“They looked at this hospital, and they concluded that this hospital didn’t close because it wasn’t doing well – in fact, it was improving under Little River,” Turner said.

According to Turner, the Little River Corporation appeared to be facing cash-flow issues within the larger portion of the company.

“They closed us, and they’ve taken the cash ever since,” he said. “They’ve been collecting all the bills ever since. People in town still get bills from Timberlands and Little River.

“What they saw and what we believe is that our hospital is one that should not close, that has the capability of operating properly in this county and in this community and that Little River, frankly, needs to be held accountable for what they did by breaching their 25-year lease nine months into the lease,” Turner continued.

Turner expressed great appreciation for any action which Congressman Brady saw possible to contribute.

“I know how important this hospital is to the community and the whole area,” said Congressman Brady. “It’s not just healthcare.”

Congressman Brady praised the efforts of the HCHD to keep the hospital operational throughout the struggles they have faced.

“You’ve done a terrific job fighting to keep this open and find the right people – not just someone, but the right people – to create long-term care for Crockett and Houston County,” he said. “Y’all are to be commended for that.”

Congressman Brady’s “short answer” to the request for assistance with reopening the hospital in a timely fashion was, “Absolutely yes.”

As Turner explained, Dr. Tjelmeland and Dr. Chikara will be obtaining “the permit for operating a hospital that has been held in abeyance and not revoked ever since the hospital closed” from the state office Friday, Jan. 26.

The permit being held in abeyance rather than being revoked, Turner said, was made possible by the efforts of State Representative Trent Ashby.

“We all know it was unprecedented for the Commissioner of Health and Human Services to not revoke our license,” he said. “The state regulations say very clearly that 10 days after a hospital is closed, the license shall be surrendered. Trent persuaded him that this one shouldn’t be surrendered.”

Turner also expressed gratitude for Dr. Tjelmeland and Dr. Chikara.

“These two gentlemen, along with another investor who has been a silent partner, have committed the funds necessary to reopen this hospital,” he said.

As Turner explained, following the closure and reopening of a hospital, no billings from the federal government or insurance companies are able to be collected for a period of roughly six months, even after a provider number is obtained.

“We all know that it’s going to take someone with deep enough pockets to sustain the reopening of this hospital, and we are very grateful that these two gentlemen and the commitment they’ve made will allow that to happen,” Turner said. “This board is committed to working very closely with them to ensure the success of what has to be a true partnership between this community and these hospital investors and physicians that have come to us.

“We’re very pleased, and we thank both of you for having faith in Houston County and the future of healthcare here,” he continued.

According to Congressman Brady, the leadership of Turner “is one of the reasons why this hospital is going to reopen.

“This is crucial to the future of Crockett and Houston County,” Congressman Brady pointed out.

Congressman Brady expressed the belief that the community of Crockett has “a lot of remarkable things” going for it, namely the dedication of the community to bringing healthcare back to its residents.

“A lot of communities would have rolled over at this point; just said, ‘It’ll never open up,’” he said. “Between your board, this commitment from the mayor, the judge and county commissioners – the community that is fighting to bring healthcare back permanently to this area is really remarkable.”

Congressman Brady described the hospital as “an amazing facility.

“There are few facilities with this type of technology (and) potential anywhere in a rural community in the country, much less Texas,” he said. “You’ve got a remarkable potential beyond what other communities have in healthcare.”

According to Congressman Brady, having two investors who recognize the potential of the hospital is also a positive asset.

“Your taking such a hard look at this facility, recognizing what this can be and the importance for the community and making that investment speaks a whole lot to you gentlemen and what you know you can deliver,” Congressman Brady said.

As Congressman Brady pointed out, the doctors investing in the hospital are “not interested in just opening the facility,” but “in bringing top-notch quality care long-term to the community.

“That’s a big difference,” he pointed out. “We so appreciate the investment you’re making.”

According to Congressman Brady, completing all necessary paperwork should be completed as soon as possible with the contract between the hospital and Crockett Medical Center.

“It really is critical that we get through the paperwork so that the reimbursement can flow; so we get the right designation; so this facility long-term can provide quality care for Crockett and Houston County.

“I’m committed to doing everything I can to make that happen,” Congressman Brady pledged. “I know how important this hospital is for the community. I will do everything I can to help this hospital reopen and stay open for the long term.”

Turner’s outlook on the hospital is a positive one.

“Between Kevin Brady and Trent Ashby, we cannot fail,” he said.

Sarah Naron may be reached via email at snaron@messenger-news.com.