The Hiawatha Community Hospital has had its share of challenges within the past couple of years but hospital officials want the public to know that the hospital continues to make improvements.

Issues with finances and concern over provider recruitment, along with changes in management have all been challenges for hospital officials in the past couple of years. A variety of factors — including changes in billing systems in late 2018 — led to a financial crisis for the hospital and hospital officials asked for the community’s help through a sales tax that went to the voters two different times. Both times, the sales tax initiative failed by a mere handful of votes.

Then came 2020 and with it COVID-19 — bringing a whole other world of challenges that most of us were completely unprepared for.

John Broberg, CEO of Hiawatha Community Hospital — hired initially as interim in early 2019, then installed as the permanent CEO later in the year — said he feels the hospital has met those challenges head on and will continue to do so.

Broberg said hospital finances have taken a turn for the better. After the failed sales tax initiatives, the hospital was able to refinance bonds with the city and acquired $2 million to make capital improvements. The unfortunate closing of Horton Community Hospital led to a patient influx toward Hiawatha’s health care providers and hospital, eventually helping HCH’s bottom line, Broberg said. Since Atchison Hospital has reopened a healthcare clinic in Horton, a few of those patients have since left HCH, but Broberg said it has not had a noticeable negative financial impact.

“We ended up with a positive year in 2019 and we are excited about that,” he said.

However, challenges with COVID-19 led to the temporary halting of some of the hospital’s services earlier this year, including all surgeries other than emergency, the outpatient clinic and others. These temporary suspensions of services did affect funding for the hospital, but Broberg said he was happy to announce that most services have been restored and most recently the Diabetes Education program.

COVID-19 brought about many challenges that most of us have not seen prior in our country. A virus that had the ability to halt life as we know it was not ever something that U.S. citizens were prepared for. And neither were most people working in our country’s health care industry.

Broberg said dealing with the challenges of preparing for COVID-19 have certainly been tough in the medical field, but he was thankful for the governor’s shutting down of the state to try and “flatten the curve” — or slow the spread of the virus. Closing down of schools and limiting mass gatherings gave health care officials the time they needed to prepare for an influx of patients that contracted the highly contagious disease.

“The shut down allowed time for the hospital to make plans for a surge,” he said. “We developed staffing models for a surge and made other adjustments in the hospital. We have been on high alert since this started, so it’s been exhausting to be ready for the surge.”

The hospital initially implemented a mobile COVID-19 testing clinic and then was able to move it inside the former Searight Clinic at Fourth and Utah. Anyone with symptoms consistent of the coronavirus are asked to call first and then are triaged and send to the sick clinic for testing and care. The sick clinic set up has also allowed well patient visits to continue in the Family Practice location with peace of mind for patients, staff and providers. In addition, the hospital was able to take the time needed to repurpose several patient rooms to be strictly used for COVID patients.

The hospital also had to hire additional staff for screening and other COVID-19 only related areas, but those expenses have mostly been reimbursed with funds from the federal CARES Act and local SPARK money for COVID relief, Broberg said.

While the hospital has seen several positive cases, there has only been one hospitalization at HCH so far, Broberg said. He said other patients had either been treated or sent home to recover on their own or were sent out to other larger hospitals for a higher level of care.

Broberg said that the concern in the healthcare industry is about the increasing number of positive COVID-19 cases and the strain that puts on healthcare resources, providers and staff. On the day of this interview, Brown County had 27 cases. However, Broberg noted that while it took several months for the county to get any cases, the rate of increase has become concerning in recent weeks — not just in the county, but the state overall.

“We all knew it would take longer to hit the rural areas,” he said.

A few statistics that Broberg noted was that it took Kansas 55 days to get the first 5,000 cases and only 17 days to double that number.

“How many cases do we have to have before people in the county will take it seriously?” he asked.

Broberg said that the health care industry was highly promoting the use of masks and had asked county officials to instill a mask mandate. County Commissioners voted to override the governor’s mask mandate a few weeks ago, but Broberg said he is pleased that some local businesses are requiring masks as well as larger chains such as Walmart.

“Our cases will continue to increase if we don’t take it seriously. The key to keeping our local businesses and schools open is to put in place protective measures to help slow the spread such as the use of masks, physical distancing, and good hand hygiene practices,” he said.

Two hospital providers are on a health and wellness “back-to-school” committee and are helping to make recommendations to get students back into the classrooms. There has been a concern about cases increasing once school is back in session, but again Broberg said health care officials feel proper mask usage will help decrease the spread of the coronavirus.

The hospital has recently been focusing heavily on recruitment to replace three providers who will be retiring within the next few years. Broberg said the hospital is working with the Kansas Recruitment and Retention Center to find “full spectrum MDs” with capabilities of working in the field of OB and performing C-sections to fill the positions of family physicians. He said they have been in contact with medical school students and second and third year residents with interest in practicing in Northeast Kansas.

“Recruitment is so critical to us,” he said. “If we have no replacements in line that puts the whole hospital and its programs at risk.”

“Continuing to provide quality services with good providers and keeping the community safe is the goal of Hiawatha Community Hospital,” he said.

“We need to have good providers to help us maintain and grow services.”

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