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RVHS shutdown plans to be aired

Lawrence County commissioners and River Valley hospital leaders and attorneys will meet Friday to discuss final plans for shutting down the hospital on Monday.

Thursday, January 25, 2001

Lawrence County commissioners and River Valley hospital leaders and attorneys will meet Friday to discuss final plans for shutting down the hospital on Monday.

"As far as River Valley, it’s too late, but after the shutdown and we get back on the ground, we may be able to do something else," commission president Paul Herrell said Wednesday.

"There is some interest in the hospital and the medical centers," Herrell said, declining to discuss specifics.

Friday’s 8:30 a.m. meeting in executive session will concentrate on a smooth shutdown, and boiler maintenance and security, to protect the county’s interests, he said.

If the boilers are not shut off properly, for instance, it could cause financial problems down the road, so the county has asked for opinions from a representative of the County Commissioners Association of Ohio who’s gone through similar situations, Herrell said.

"We want to see it shut down in a proper manner so something else might be done with it," Herrell said.

Meeting this morning, River Valley Health System’s board of trustees is expected to discuss maintenance of buildings and records, and what happens next.

"There are so many questions we don’t have answers for yet," board chairman Jim Weber said, referring to accounts payable and receivable, how long the board will be active, future physical plant problems and remaining pieces of the orderly shutdown.

RVHS discharged its last patient Tuesday, he said. Kitchen, laundry, ER, radiology and other staffs are no longer working.

"Basically, who we’ve got right now are people working with records and inventory," Weber said, adding the board wants to protect the facility’s future.

"We are also concentrating on looking at all prospective hospitals interested in using all the facility, part of the facility ," he said. "At the same time, we don’t want to create false hope."

River Valley Health System dietary and kitchen aide Linda Qualls found out this week she wouldn’t work through the hospital’s last days.

"I was so shocked, and I’m very upset, but not just about losing my job," the Decatur resident said.

"I want to know what the community’s supposed to do. What happens when there’s a serious wreck? What happens if there’s a disaster?" she said.

Mrs. Qualls remembers it took River Valley and the Ashland, Ky., hospitals just to meet the evacuation needs during a fire at a local nursing home.

"We need the hospital," she said.

Employees were like family, loved their jobs no matter what the hours, and many have nowhere to go, she said.

"I’m hurt for my friends working with tears in their eyes."

Behind that hurt lies many questions from former workers, especially why, Mrs. Qualls said.

"How did they get $17 million in the hole?" she said. "We do have ones that we blame, but we want an explanation."

Hospital board chairman Jim Weber said he’s sure the reasons behind the debt will be addressed but the immediate focus will be completing the shutdown and planning for the future.

In the past, hospital officials have blamed poor finances on a federal reduction in Medicare payments and a slowdown in use of RVHS services.

"We’re not concentrating on how it happened right now," Weber said.

The board will continue seeking help and identifying who might take an interest in the facility’s future, he said.

Pat Clonch, one of the board’s newest members, said last week that the board had not identified how RVHS acquired such a large debt but it did not happen quickly.

Any business in similar shape would have had to close, Mrs. Clonch said, but expressed frustration at having to make the decision.

It will take a lot of time and financial expertise to find answers, she added.

Lawrence County Commission president Paul Herrell said county leaders are frustrated, too.

"There is no reason for such a debt," he said.

The county has taken criticism from employees and residents for rescinding a $500,000 bond aimed at helping RVHS, and for not stepping in financially, but there was no way the county could put taxpayer money in jeopardy, Herrell said.

"We (the county) would be in the same shape as the hospital if we took on that $17 million," he said.

Mrs. Clonch agreed, saying she originally thought the county was responsible to help but three attorney opinions show the county has no legal responsibility.

And, "the previous board shut the county out of their operations," she said.

If the county did funnel money into a board-run group like the hospital, it could become liable for millions in debts and that means the taxpayers would be paying, Mrs. Clonch said.

"None of us would want to be responsible for every board in the county," she said. "The elected officials helped as much as they could."

Even weeks before the hospital’s announced closure, it was too late, Herrell said.

"By the time we went through all the legal steps, get this group of board members in, they didn’t have time to turn it around and the state didn’t have time," he said.

"There’s no question six months ago they could have turned it around, but I’m not blaming anyone. The original board didn’t get the right information."

Weber remained uncertain about the county’s responsibilities with the hospital, considering it owns the land and building, he said.

An attorney general’s opinion has not been sought, he added.

Legislators, including state Sen. Mike Shoemaker, sought assistance from the Ohio Department of Development and human agencies, but a short timeline created problems.

"It was such short notice And we’re in the process of deliberating a new state budget," Shoemaker said. "Unless people a lot more powerful than us makes things happen, we’ve done about all we can."

The hospital’s financial "track record" also became a concern among state agencies, he said.

"We haven’t given up but things have to run their course."

No matter what happens next, the workers, families and everybody who lives in the county are the ones who are hurt, Mrs. Qualls said.

And, there will be plenty more questions by the public, she said.

"Why can’t the county government step in and take over if that’s what has to be done? I could see things happening; why couldn’t anybody else?"

The shutdown can’t just be blamed on the Medicare revenue lost when Congress passed the Balanced Budget Act, Mrs. Qualls said.

"I think they better figure out where the $17 million went," she said.

"It’s important we have this hospital in the county, whether I have a job there or not, especially that emergency department," she added. "As much as taxes are in the county, we should have something.

"Somebody’s got to step in and be willing to say fix this place up and make it work."