Local Leaders And New Owners Look To Revive Patrick County's Only Hospital
It’s been nine months since the rural southwest Virginia city of Stuart saw its only hospital close its doors. The facility’s temporary owner is seeking a buyer. In the meantime, local residents now face longer trips for care.
Derek Wagner was raised in Patrick County, and says he knows the area like the back of his hand. The Captain of the JEB Stuart Volunteer Rescue Squad, says sometimes –he helps other ambulance services.
“Especially down in the county line area, these providers up here, they don’t really know where they’re really going,” he said. “I’m like, just let me drive, I’ll get you there.”
That knowledge came in handy when the former Pioneer Community Hospital abruptly closed its doors without warning. Without another nearby, that means ambulance trips of 30 miles or more each way, to Mt. Airy, North Carolina, Martinsville, Galax, or even Christiansburg.
The county added its own service last fall – and Wagner now has a couple of paid drivers. But he says most, including himself, are volunteers, and are transporting patients while also working full-time jobs.
“We have our crews here, which we have three ambulances, if we can just get the volunteers out to help,” Wagner said. “Some days it’s easier, but when it flies to heck, you just got to do the best you can, fly back, lights and sirens, and get the call covered. Sometimes that makes your patient have to wait a little longer, but – hey, we don’t have a hospital.”
In more urgent cases, medical helicopters from other hospitals can get there, but Wagner says during severe weather, ambulance can be the only way to move a patient.
Luckily, that was not the case for Robert Diesel and his wife Ada a few weeks back. She’d suffered a blood clot in her leg.
"So the ambulance came- another ambulance came – they said no, we got to get the helicopter in,” Diesel said. “So luckily for me, at the end of my road, about a mile and a half down, is one of the remote helicopter landing spots. But without that, what do I do?”
Diesel is a financial consultant, asked to review the Patrick County hospital’s records over seven years.
He says its former owner, Pioneer Health Services, had been making a profit, but suffered from mismanagement. The company filed for bankruptcy protection in early 2016, and the hospital closed last September.
A couple months later, Virginia Community Capital, a state-owned non-profit financial group, bought the hospital at a foreclosure auction. A couple years earlier, VCC had loaned Pioneer millions for renovations.
Diesel says it’s seeking too high a figure for a nearly 60-year old hospital.
“And so we’re sitting here as a community, a small, highly-retiree concentrated community, with a hospital that’s trying to absorb $6.5 million worth of debt, on an asset base that’s worth less than half that,” he said.
Patrick County Administrator Tom Rose says VCC is being “totally unreasonable” at that asking price.
“This is a definitive need that we have, and it’s not a want,” he said. “This is hurting the prosperity of the community as well. Businesses are not going to locate here when there’s not a hospital.”
Wayne Waldrop is VCC’s President of Lending and Community Impact. He understands those comments, but says the company needs to recoup its $5-million investment.
“We think the value of the hospital is somewhere in that range, and at this point, we’re working towards solutions that will work for the community, and also work for our company,” he said.
Waldrop says VCC is working with a consultant on possible solutions.
They include leasing the building to a group of health care providers - with an option to buy, or possibly selling it to Patrick County. While Waldrop says discussions are generally health care-related, one solution could be allowing the building to function solely as an emergency room, with a lab and a couple of patient beds.
Patrick County’s Economic Development Director, Debbie Foley, says she’s in touch with VCC at least once a week with hopes of finding a solution.
“How much as a hospital worth – you know, you do have to take future earnings, potential earnings, into account for that. It’s Commonwealth Virginia funds that actually created this bank,” said Foley, who also says she empathizes with the non-profit.
“They’re not like a Wells Fargo or Capital One, that they can just do a loss, or write it off, one go on with life,” she said.
The hospital very nearly became the property of Americore Health Solutions late last year – but the prospect of a $5-million dollar price tag in bankruptcy court turned the company away.
Americore, a Florida-based start-up, will be re-opening another shuttered hospital - about 200 miles west of Stuart – in Pennington Gap, which closed in 2013 under similar circumstances.
Jeanette Filpi will be the new Lee County Medical Center’s CEO. Just a few months ago, she left the job as administrator with the Patrick County hospital, but says she still gets calls from officials there.
“I still have hope for Stuart, because you have that support community that will support they want their hospital back, and will continue to push, and also push VCC to look at how they can negotiate to get a hospital back in there, cause that’s what they need,” Filpi said.
If both sides can come to some sort of agreement in 2018, the hospital still has an active license as a 25-bed acute care facility. Legislation extending that license, co-sponsored by was signed by Governor Ralph Northam early this year. Sen. Bill Stanley and Del. Charles Poindexter, both Republicans, sponsored measures to extend that license. Holding that license is required for essential services like X-rays, and lab work.
If VCC and Patrick County can restore the hospital, the County Board of Supervisors Chairman, Lock Boyce, says that will mean more than potentially saving a life, and keeping businesses around. It will mean keeping an active retirement community intact.
Lock Boyce chairs the county’s Board of Supervisors. He says this loss is also affecting the region’s long-term growth.
"We’ve had a building boom with people coming here from other parts of the country, and building their dream retirement home and living out their days – but they depend on a community hospital in close proximity,” he said.