Love County Health Center Celebrates 40th Anniversary
Posted on Monday, January 30th, 2012
Coworkers with 30 or more years of service stand in front of the 40th anniversary banner with Willis Choate III (red sweater) a member of the Founding Public Health Committee from the 1960s: Connie Barker, Richard Barker, Rick Stephens, Linda Dixon, Betty Galloway, Dr. Vergil Smith (credited with admitting the first hospital patient on January 30, 1972), Sally Stephens, and Marie Ross.
Are you in better shape at age 40 than at age 20? Your local hospital is.
A robust Love County Health Center will celebrate its 40th anniversary with a public reception from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m. January 30 in the therapy building’s conference room.
Annual successes have followed near closure in 1990 say hospital and community leaders.
“I see this county hospital going forward,” said Darlene Beardsley, who has presided over the 5-member LCHC Board of Control throughout the recovery and growth period.
“We’re not going toward closure locally. Something nationally would have to happen that impacted hospitals all over the country. We’re always in the throes of Medicare and Medicaid and whether they will cut back on provider payments. But locally, this has been one struggle that would never quit. People in the county have made sure we have this hospital. They have been behind us, supported us with tax money.
“Love County has a big, big reason to be proud of the hospital, staff, and doctors and what can be done for people. It’s just marvelous to think we have this type of care,” she said.
Dr. Vergil Smith, 81, the only coworker affiliated with the institution for its entire 40 years, has remarked, “I would say we are in better shape today than any other small hospital in Oklahoma.”
On the 40th anniversary, Love County Health Center, doing business as Mercy Health/Love County, employs 11 primary care providers (including physicians Smith, J.T. O’Connor, Jr., Stephen Hutchins, Larry Powell, and Paul Nioce), and 122 other coworkers in the 25-bed hospital, clinic, and EMS.
In the year ended June 30, 2011, the hospital served 435 inpatients and 5,170 outpatients. The emergency room served 5,307 patients. Love County EMS responded to 1,591 ambulance calls. The clinic served 14,000 patient visits.
Smith, O’Connor, and Hutchins turned their private medical clinics over to the hospital in 1990 to help save the county institution. (The 1980s had been a tumultuous decade of rising costs and federal healthcare cutbacks that resulted in the closure of two dozen small town hospitals in Oklahoma).
“It was a frightening period,” recalled Linda Dixon, Health Information Department Manager, and second in seniority with 39 years.
A wing of the hospital was converted to clinic use, with revenues accruing to the hospital rather than to the physicians. The hospital reluctantly trimmed its roster, and remaining staff agreed to suspend employee benefits.
“We stayed with it, because the people of Love County needed us,” Dixon said.
Marie Ross, RN, Director of Nursing, on staff since 1976, said she thought of the casualties that had been averted over the years because the patients received emergency care in Marietta. “Fifteen miles more is a long way,” she said, referring to neighboring counties.
“I also thought of the loved ones who had died here, and I wanted others to have local care. I still want that for myself,” Ross said.
That same year, voters approved a one-cent sales tax to further assist in keeping the hospital open. The Brannan Family Trust agreed to convert capital improvement funds to temporary support of day-to-day operations. The Board engaged Richard Barker, then a respiratory therapist with the hospital for 17 years, as administrator.
Under Barker’s leadership, Love County Health Center has:
• Developed Constructive Relationships and Licensures: The financial squeeze on hospitals everywhere continued into the 1990s, forcing institutions to team up to obtain central purchasing of equipment and other cost savings. LCHC formed a buying consortium through the Integris network in 1995 that included Memorial Hospital in Ardmore. Following the sale of Memorial Hospital in 1997, the network shifted to Mercy Health System. For the next 18 months, Mercy leased the local hospital, and under control of Mercy Memorial, poured $2 million into Love County Health Center – paying off the hospital’s debts, upgrading the facility inside and out, and constructing the new clinic building, all at no cost to Love County.
Then, in 1998, continued financial turmoil forced Mercy Health System to withdraw from the lease agreement to concentrate on its larger facilities. The Love County Commissioners reactivated the Board of Control, and voters renewed the one cent sales tax to support hospital operations. LCHC entered a management agreement with Mercy. The local hospital enjoys cost savings associated with making purchases through aconsortium, and employees are on the payroll, including benefits, of Mercy Memorial. Ownership of the hospital and clinic remain with Love County.
Another valuable partnership emerged in 2003, when WinStar World Casino launched a comprehensive gaming operation on the site of what had started a few years earlier as a bingo hall on Chickasaw Nation trust land near Thackerville. WinStar is now Oklahoma`s largest and the world`s third largest casino in terms of casino floor space. The tribe contracts with Love County Health Center for first aid in the casino, and ambulance service and fire service to the casino, hotels, golf course, and other structures.
The tribe built a combination EMS-fire station (Station 2) that serves as housing, training center, and vehicle bay for the hospital/EMS and fire brigade. Station 2 service extends to all of southern Love County, enhancing ambulance response for the entire area, including travelers on Interstate 35. The tribal-hospital relationship has helped produce a total Love County EMS staff of 50, consisting of 20 ambulance EMTs and paramedics, 14 firefighter-paramedics, and 16 first aid workers at WinStar and Riverwind Casinos.
Further stabilizing financial operations of Love County Health Center was the hospital’s “critical access” licensure. Reserved for small, non-profit hospitals with 25 or fewer beds, critical access permits the billing of Medicare at 101% of the reasonable cost of treating each patient, rather than on a fixed reimbursement based on a patient’s diagnosis that applies to most other hospitals. LCHC was among the first five rural hospitals in Oklahoma to seize the favorable licensure when first made available in 1998. Today, 42 rural hospitals have the critical access designation. The licensure requires the hospital to transfer inpatients needing more than four days of acute care to a larger facility, but it allows the hospital to treat those requiring only skilled nursing care for more than four days.
“We have the utmost admiration for Richard Barker. We feel his interest has been nothing but the interest of the hospital, the interest of people in the county getting the best medicine they can get. He is the type of leader that, instead of standing and arguing, goes out and finds another way to make money. He is ethical and the groups he works with know he will do the right thing,” Beardsley said.
• Added Doctors: From three physicians and one physician assistant in 1990, LCHC now employs five physicians, one family nurse practitioner, and five physician assistants to serve in the clinic, hospital, emergency room, and long-term care (nursing home) patients.
• Built and Renovated: In 1998, the hospital moved the medical clinic into an adjoining, new 6,000 square foot building. It enlarged the structure in 2011 with nine more treatment rooms in 3,000 square feet. Also new: An outpatient therapy building, a hospital/EMS training center, and a second ambulance station (at WinStar Casino near Thackerville). Inside the hospital, renovations have established a chapel, expanded the Hospital Auxiliary gift shop, turned the former cafeteria into office space, and covered the walkways from the street into the clinic and hospital.
Changes in and around the emergency room answered the community’s need for emergency disaster services with a decontamination shower and isolation room.
• Added Services and Equipment: Local patients are able to receive more care without leaving the county, thanks to the addition of rehabilitative services in physical, occupational, and speech therapy; a CT scanner, computerized ultrasound, and a bone density scanner. The radiography department converted from film x-rays to digital imaging, accelerating the pace and clarity of interpretation. The laboratory performs blood, urine, and tissue tests for patients of doctors from throughout the area. The hospital instituted an electronic medical record for easy transfer to Mercy facilities anywhere. In the clinic, drop-in care is available from physician assistants. Same day appointments may also be arranged by calling in advance.
• Saved and Expanded Love County EMS: Asked to take over management of a near-insolvent county ambulance service in 1993, the hospital has produced an unrivaled success. Love County now has more paramedics than any other small county in Oklahoma, and at Station 2 at WinStar Casino, is home to the nation’s first hospital/EMS-based professional fire brigade. Licensure has progressed from the lowest -- basic – up to paramedic life support, with heart monitors, defibrillators, pacemakers, life-saving drugs, and intravenous medications on board a fleet of new or almost-new ambulances. The hospital/EMS has its own training division, serving the public in Love County and surrounding counties with education leading to licensure as a basic EMT or a paramedic.
Training support extends to Love County Search and Rescue and volunteer emergency medical responders around the county who are “first on the scene” on many calls and in radio communication with EMS en route. Ground ambulance is supplemented by area air ambulance services. The 24-hour emergency room, managed by Tad Hall, PA, a co-worker since 1982, stabilizes patients and initiates care. If necessary, the patient is then transferred by ambulance to a different health care facility for mid-level or trauma care.
• Established Community Relations and Food Pantry: Beyond medicine, LCHC has made itself a valuable partner and active participant in public health, social service, and economic development endeavors in the county. Leadership has been provided by the institution’s Mission Team, consisting of Ross, Hall, Richard Barker, Connie Barker, clinic director; Rick Stephens, radiology director; Ann Langston, administrative assistant; and Connie Graham, business office director.
They host the monthly luncheon meetings of the Love County Chamber of Commerce and the Love County Community Coalition. For more than a dozen years, they have helped sponsor the annual 8th grade health fair, the Child Abuse Prevention Month Puppet Show, and Relay for Life. Through the Love County Health Center Foundation, the Mission Team provides administrative support for the Love County Multidisciplinary Team of law enforcement, child welfare, and mental health professionals who jointly investigate priority cases of child abuse.
Ten years ago, LCHC partnered with the Sisters of Mercy and the Family Shelter of Southern Oklahoma in acquiring the Catherine’s Legacy Grant to launch the victim advocate office serving victims of domestic violence. Its active support of the office continues year-to-year.
In 2001, hospital employees, concerned about patients who told of choosing between buying food and buying medicine, organized the Food Pantry Serving the Hungry and Food Insecure of Love County. Started as a continuous food drive consisting of canned and packaged goods dispensed from a former linen closet of the hospital, the charity expanded to meet public need. The pantry is now operated by members of the Hospital Auxiliary and community volunteers.
They dispense 250 food baskets every Tuesday at a pantry building, constructed to meet demand, north of the clinic. Home delivery is made to some clients unable to travel. Potatoes, onions, milk, bread, and other perishables are dispensed, along with canned and packaged foods and frozen meats.
Emergency food packages, consisting of about 12 items, are available 24 hours per day at the nurses’ station in the hospital. The pantry is aided by local food drives and financial contributions from the public. It is licensed by the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma.
Attorney Ken Delashaw has represented Love County Health Center for 26 years. “The institution has never been better,” he said. “We are just so fortunate to have things going as well as they are, with qualified, quality doctors doing fulltime work and an expanded physical plant. I represent other rural hospitals. They admire what has been accomplished here.”
“It’s been one success after another,” said Willis Choate, publisher of the Marietta Monitor, describing the hospital’s last 20 years. “They’ve worked together – the doctors, the hospital management, the affiliations with Mercy and others. Without all of that, it is much more likely the hospital would not have survived.”
Choate has first-hand knowledge of a similar struggle 40 years ago. Just out of college, he was the youngest member of the Public Health Committee that had been appointed by the County Commissioners in 1960 to obtain a license to establish a county hospital.
The committee was chaired by George Goodrich, funeral home director, and also included H.A. Welsh, Clarence Cochran, Worth Zachary, Bill Anderson, and D. Joyce Coffey.
An earlier inquiry by the county, in 1956, shortly after Memorial Hospital in Ardmore had received a license, had been rebuffed by the hospital authority in the State Health Department for reasons having to do with community size and proximity to established general hospitals.
In 1966, the citizens of Love County approved a $350,000 bond for hospital construction. The vote of 87% set a state record for a county-wide bond. All the community needed in order to obtain matching construction funds from the federal government’s Hill Burton Act was a hospital license from the state.
The committee gave the licensing official examples of hospitals built in communities similar to Love County, including Tishomingo and Madill. By 1967, convinced the application was being stonewalled, the committee demonstrated that only three counties in the state were without hospital facilities, Cotton, Grant, and Love. “Of these only Love County is making all out effort to obtain this service for its people,” Goodrich wrote.
Documents from the era describe 10 frustrating years of correspondence, meetings, and public presentations by the committee to the State Health Department and appeals for help to two Governors.
At last, the committee secured approval for a combination facility consisting of a 20-bed acute care wing and a 10-bed extended care wing with central services and a common staff for both wings. In 1968, the committee went back to the people for renewed approval of financing, and construction got underway in 1970.
On January 30, 1972, Love County Health Center formally opened. Freezing temperatures forced the ceremony indoors across town at the Fair Building. Gov. Dewey Bartlett, one of the governors (Henry Bellmon being the other) who had backed the committee, told the grateful audience, “It’s a good thing that Okies are a tough breed, because if you hadn’t been, this hospital would not be here today.”
The newly-organized Hospital Auxiliary, led by president Katherine Frazier, gave tours. Dr. Smith was credited with admitting the first patient, a Ringling woman.
Recently, Choate said, “I’m sorry that the rest of the committee that worked so hard could not be here today to see what the hospital has become, the fruits of their labor.
“George Goodrich was tenacious, H.A. Welsh brought technical knowledge, and Clarence Cochran also was a driver. Members of the committee paid their own money for hospital consultants who could help with the license application. Community pride played a huge role in this,” he said.
“To exist well, we need health care,” Choate said. “The future of the community revolves around this. The long-term goal of the hospital does not change. It is to serve the people of Love County with the best medical care that can be provided. The only thing that ever changes is how to reach the goal, and that has been adjusted with the times. This hospital has proved it is a survivor. I believe it is well-positioned to have a very viable future regardless of the changes made in Washington.”