Leaders in Tuscaloosa County once again called for DCH to move fully or partially under the umbrella of either the University of Alabama or the UAB Health System to improve conditions at its three hospitals and guarantee their long-term survival.

The comments came Wednesday from Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox, Probate Judge Rob Robertson and Northport City Administrator Glenda Webb, who were panelists at the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama's annual State of the Community Breakfast Wednesday morning.

The trio voiced concerns very similar to those raised at the Chamber's Next Level Summit in April, which the Thread reported in detail here. 

Instead of speaking to a small working group of two or three dozen people, though, the elected officials were addressing a full crowd of several hundred community leaders gathered in the Bryant Conference Center Wednesday morning.

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A Busy Summer for DCH

It is, of course, worth noting that a lot has changed since that smaller April meeting. DCH's longtime CEO Bryan Kindred announced he would retire and the System hired Katrina Keefer to run its three area hospitals. She has since stepped into that role full-time, and Kindred has remained with the System as a consultant.

Chief Operating Officer Paul Betz stepped down from his position a month after Kindred announced his retirement.

Webb and the city of Northport decried the "veil of secrecy" under which the DCH Board of directors has been operating, and in June said conditions were improving in that respect. 

With all that in mind, Maddox, Robertson and Webb said Wednesday that improving health care in the Tuscaloosa area remains a top priority for all three governments.

A Very Difficult Position

“This is in no way indicative of my appreciation and thankfulness to the men and women who work at DCH across all the different disciplines," Maddox said as a preface. "I’ve also been very encouraged by the new hire of [new DCH Health System CEO] Katrina Keefer, who I think has been a rockstar hire for DCH. And I think the Board of Trustees at DCH is listening and understands that we’re at a very critical moment.”

DCH is a community hospital, which means they do not turn away patients who cannot afford to pay for treatment. Maddox said the burden of providing that care is heavier than ever.

"Healthcare has changed rapidly and in Alabama, we have seen dozens of rural hospitals close," Maddox continued. "DCH serves some of the poorest counties not only in the state but in the nation. And as rural healthcare has collapsed, DCH has had to take on that burden, and that’s not DCH’s fault. It just became basically a basin to take on health care with no reimbursement to the hospital itself, so as a business they have been put into a very difficult position – in fact, your businesses could not withstand something like that. But at the end of the day, that’s where we are."

A Need for a Partner

 

Those dynamics will certainly not get any better when the UAB System opens its brand-new, state-of-the-art, nine-story Medical West Hospital Authority in McCalla in 2024, and Maddox said DCH needs to be moving now on a plan to survive.

“My position is this: we have a CEO who I think is ready to lead, but we have to go find a partner to withstand what’s about to happen," Maddox said. "We have to find a bigger entity – and I’ll just go ahead and say it and get in trouble – we need a partnership with the University of Alabama System. And whether that’s with the system itself, with UAB, we have to find that partnership because there are just not enough resources or paying customers and when the McCalla hospital opens, we have now provided another choice for paying customers.”

All three elected leaders said they were optimistic about Keefer's leadership, but perhaps none more so than Mayor Maddox.

"The good news is Katrina, to me, is the perfect hire to help us navigate the uncharted waters of the next couple of years," Maddox said. "But we have to act quickly."

A Chapter Closes, A New Day Dawns

Webb kept her comments brief, but said again that her biggest concern is that DCH's nine-member board must operate transparently -- especially since five of those board members are appointed by the Tuscaloosa city council, the county commission and the city of Northport.

"For Northport, I think our biggest cry is [DCH needs to be] open and accountable to the community," Webb said. "Let our individual representatives that are appointed by the governments have a free dialogue about what the needs are, what the direction is and what we need to protect or build up and move forward. I think we can all say we’re glad that a chapter is closing on the way health care has been managed here and we’re looking forward to new partnerships and a new day."

A Need for "Operational Corrections"

If Maddox's primary concern for DCH was its financial viability and Webb's was transparency from its leadership, Judge Robertson's was more practical.

Among other things, he decried the infamously long wait times in the emergency rooms of DCH's hospitals, which can negatively impact patient outcomes and tie up ambulances and other public services while crews wait for space to open up in the ER.

We have some outstanding employees at DCH, our citizens who work out there provide an excellent level of care, but we’ve got to make some serious operational corrections in our ER and the way we flow patients in that hospital," Robertson said. "We’ve got to bring that up to a level that can be competitive with the environment that is being created, especially when a new hospital opens a few minutes up the road."

A Cautious Optimism

Robertson suggested a partnership with the University of Alabama System and its UAB Health System could be an avenue for fast improvement -- they already have management relationships with Medical West, Baptist Health Montgomery, Russell Medical in Alexander City, John Paul Jones in Camden, Whitfield Regional in Demopolis and Regional Medical Center of Central Alabama.

And Keefer may be just the person to lead that effort -- she spent 17 years with the UAB Health System and ended her tenure there as the senior vice president and chief financial officer of Baptist Health Montgomery.

Like the others, Robertson said he has been encouraged by conversations with Keefer about the direction the System will head in the days to come.

"I believe that with this recent hire – I’m extremely impressed," he said. "We’re going to see some improvements, I’m confident, in some of these fundamental operations because our new CEO who has been brought in, she has that mindset. She’s tackling it head-on and she’s listening and I think we’re going to see some good things, I think we're going to see some encouraging signs, but at the same time, the model is not sustainable, the way it is structured right now."

Check out the rest of the Thread's coverage of the DCH Health System here, and stay connected for more to come later this week. 

Top Stories from the Tuscaloosa Thread (8/8 - 8/15)

17 of the Top Stories published by the Tuscaloosa Thread during the week of August 8th, 2022.

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