BRAWLEY — Pioneer Memorial Healthcare District's (PMHD) interim CEO Damon Sorensen sat down with The Desert Review for an interview regarding recent local stirrings in healthcare Friday, January 13.
Sorensen first addressed the closure of El Centro Regional Medical Center's (ECRMC) Obstetrics and Pediatrics department. "Some of the docs up there are really unhappy about the closure of the OB/Peds at El Centro, and I understand," said Sorensen. "It's an emotional thing. I've never been at a hospital where they've closed that, but I know a lot of hospitals have."
According to Sorensen, the Obstetrics and Pediatrics departments are often some of the first to go.
"Typically those programs don't make money, and as people begin to struggle, it is a program that's frequently shut down," said Sorensen. "We're very fortunate that we do make money on it [at PMHD]."
Sorensen also addressed the local discussions about PMHD merging with ECRMC. "We hear a lot that we're merging with them, and that there's a lot of things we've been doing together, which we haven't been," said Sorensen. "They did come down and notify us that they were going to close their program and from that day forward we worked very hard to be able to provide that service, because if it's not there, we're the only place in the County, so they're going to come here. We were fortunate that we were able to hire a lot of their staff... We hired 25 of [ECRMC's] staff, so we're going to be able to take care of all the people in the County for OB services."
Sorensen said that access to care hasn't declined, but only where one gets it has changed. "We have the capacity, we have the staff to take care of all of the folks in the community for OB services," said Sorensen. Sorensen also clarified that ECRMC did come to a special board meeting at PMHD in December of 2022 and ask PMHD to consider buying their hard assets.
"The consultants down there have a vision of how that should go, and they've been pretty open about sharing it. They think El Centro and PMH ought to come together and then sell to a larger health system, because they think that one of the characteristics of a successful hospital is that they're part of a bigger system," said Sorensen. "Big systems are nice. I've worked for a couple of them in my career. But they're not everything they're cracked up to be. My goal in this is that the key stakeholders in this County decide what happens with that."
Sorensen expressed hope for the future of healthcare in the Valley. "I think that the future is bright. The key is that we want to be transparent in everything that we're doing. We've been doing that a lot with employees and key stakeholders and we just want people to really know what's been going on," said Sorensen.
Sorensen also disclosed the specific plans PMHD has to recover some of their ongoing financial losses. "When you do tests, you've got to have a preauthorization from the insurance company before you do it or you don't get paid. There were tests that were getting done before that preauthorization was happening and we weren't getting paid," said Sorensen. "You can't get paid for things that aren't documented that you actually do. A lot of times we take care of very complex patients that we get paid less for because the documentation isn't there to identify those complexities that we actually treated... If we don't dot our i's and cross our t's right, working with registration and those kinds of things, then payers don't pay us. That's probably our biggest opportunity to improve our finances."
Sorensen explained that travelling nurses get paid over three times a normal employee's wages, and that PMHD is looking at relying on traveling nurses less in order to save costs. "There's some really great schools here in the Valley that are producing LVNs, Licensed Vocational Nurses, rather than Registered Nurses. We can't find the Registered Nurses, so we're going to change our model and use more LVNs," said Sorensen. "The LVNs are very skilled. The only things they can't do that the RN has to do is an initial assessment of the patient, and they can't pass I.V. meds, but other than that they can do everything an RN can do. That's a model that both hospitals are switching to, to be able to get rid of those expensive contract people we have, and just have people who live and work in the County be on our teams."
Sorensen emphasized the commitment of PMHD to the community and to openness.
"We are here to make sure that the residents of the County get the healthcare that they need, and we're committed to transparency," said Sorensen.
I live in Atlanta where we had 2 hospitals close. The hospitals are now owned by investment firms like Blackrock. These firms want to make all medicine profitable and get rid of the part where there is no profit (for example emergency rooms). So even though the pandemic has created a greater need on top of typical requirements from hospitals we now have areas with low income populations expected to use hospitals farther away and with 2 to 3 times the demand.
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