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County delays vote on home health sale

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County commissioners weren’t ready to make a decision Friday on whether to sell the county’s home health agency. After a public hearing, commissioners were unanimous in their decision to delay the process for up to 30 days.

At Friday’s public hearing, commissioners planned to discuss the two bids they received for the home health agency based out of the Wilson County Health Department.

Two companies offered bids to purchase home health — HealthView Capital LLC, a privately held company based in Rocky Mount, and In-Home Partnership, a joint venture between Duke LifePoint and LHC, which is based in Lafayette, Louisiana. Both offered $2 million to purchase Wilson County Home Health.

While commissioners questioned representatives from both companies about the proposals, the scope of the meeting shifted. They wanted more time, more information and more answers from not only the companies, but from the health department. Topics discussed included reasons behind home health’s loss of revenue in the past several years, the urgent push in the sale process and concerns regarding the welfare of patients and current home health employees.

“We need to get this right,” newly appointed Commissioner JoAnne Daniels said regarding the decision on whether or not to sell the agency. “I think that’s the most important thing.”

Daniels said she believed commissioners needed to do their due diligence before making such a big decision. Commissioner Roger Lucas agreed.

“This process has been extremely fast,” Lucas said, adding that he won’t vote on something when he’s not satisfied with having all the information at his fingertips to make an informed decision.

“I still think there is a lot of information that needs to come out to make me feel better on my decision.”

Commissioner Chris Hill had several questions and wanted more time and more information. He made a motion for the board to delay the process. He also suggested an open meeting needed to be held in the meantime, where commissioners could discuss the agency’s money issues, conduct research and look closely at the companies.

The board’s vice chair, Leslie Atkinson, also had similar concerns.

“I’m not comfortable with this,” he said. Commissioners wanted more information on how both companies would care for indigent patients or those who are underinsured or uninsured. They also wanted to know more about both companies’ charity care policies.

HOME HEALTH BIDS

Last week, a Wilson County Board of Health committee looked over the two bid proposals and discussed them in detail. Panel members sent their findings to commissioners. In a letter to commissioners, the committee advised commissioners ask several more questions regarding LHC, which they said seemed to be the better option of the two companies to purchase the agency.

Those interested in purchasing home health were given from April 3 to April 30 to submit a proposal. While only two companies responded, the committee said a notice of the agency’s potential sale was sent to six companies. Three of those companies called and expressed interest. The other three were sent to home health agencies known to do business in or close to Wilson County, officials said.

MONEY WOES

Since fiscal year 2012-13, the home health agency has lost roughly $1.7 million in revenue, according to county officials. Revenues continue to decline due to cuts in Medicare reimbursement rates and a freeze in Medicaid rates, county officials have said. Wilson County Health Director Teresa Ellen said officials have spent the past five years working hard with staff and others to make cuts in order to sustain the home health agency.

Home health operated at a $900,000 loss last year, according to budget figures. So far this year, the agency is in the red by $80,000 and that’s with expenses and reimbursements still out. Ellen has said officials project this year’s total loss for the agency to be roughly $271,000.

And it’s the wide gap between last year’s loss and this year’s projected shortfall that Lucas and other commissioners have been wondering about.

“It’s bothered my mind, because one year they would lose $924,000 and within a year it flipped to $80,000,” Lucas said. “There’s something somewhere that’s broke in the system. And somebody has let this go by.”

PATIENTS’ OUTCRY

While Lucas said somebody dropped the ball, he didn’t put the blame on any department. Lucas essentially said he felt like commissioners have been in the dark about the agency’s longtime financial woes.

“If we had known the situation of some of the details I have gotten since this process started, I think home health would have been a different entity that what it looks like today,” he said.

He said he looked back at the agency’s expenditures and revenues over a 20-year period and the agency made money. Lucas said he believes the agency can still be fixed.

“Wilson County has been a leader,” he said.

Lucas said there are ideas to solve the problems the agency is currently facing, but they are not getting proper consideration.

“It was more like that (home health) needed to go and this was what we needed to do,” he said.

Lucas said not only is the county’s home health organization excellent, but he has heard from many patients since the potential sale process began.

“Their patient base outcry has been unbelievable in support of home health,” he said.

30-DAY delay

Both companies told Hill they would honor the 30-day extension for the board. Ellen said while the home health agency would too, she had concerns.

“My only concern is we have employees resigning on a daily basis and I’m concerned about our ability as we are in limbo to continue to provide quality care to our patients,” Ellen said.

Atkinson also asked Ellen if home health could be fixed.

Ellen said if officials were going to cover costs, they would have to start looking at how many visits they were making per patient.

“We make more visits than the statewide average,” she said, adding that they have looked at a lot of things over the past few years and implemented solutions, but the agency is still losing money.

‘NOT A FOLLOWER’

Several people spoke at Friday’s public hearing, including Marla Parker, a physical therapist and home health contract worker who opposes the sale. Parker and others have gathered nearly 450 signatures as of Friday from those who support continued public ownership.

“Why can’t we figure this out ourselves and be the success story and leader, rather than follow suit and do like all the other health departments in our state?” Parker said. “Can’t we be the innovative trendsetter and not a follower?”

Home health agency employees also spoke about how much they love their patients and enjoy working for the county.

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