LMH preparing for virus’ long-term impact on operations

photo by: Chris Conde

LMH Health is pictured in a file photo from October 2018.

Leaders of LMH Health on Wednesday said they were making long-term preparations for dealing with the spread of COVID-19, which they expect to grow much wider in the coming weeks.

“We need to be prepared for not only the next six weeks but the next six months,” LMH President and CEO Russ Johnson told the hospital’s board of trustees at a Wednesday meeting that was conducted by conference call.

Johnson said the reports he has seen lead him to believe that Kansas will see a dramatic increase in the number of cases. He said that expansion, combined with stresses put on the health care system across the country, will require LMH to operate in suboptimal conditions.

“One of the challenges I’m most focused on is helping the organization and leadership see beyond a week or two,” Johnson said. “We can get involved in conversations about how we want to do something, when the reality is the supply chain — it is not going to break down — but it will be inadequate. That will be true for every hospital in the country. Every hospital in the country will be facing these challenges.

“But I think LMH is doing everything it needs to do right now and probably a little more than expected. Our engagement with the county and public health partners is very good.”

Managing employee levels will be one of the hospital’s challenges. While a spike in cases is expected at some point, that hasn’t yet happened at LMH. Patient volume is down and will fall further with LMH’s decision to stop performing all nonemergency and elective surgeries through April 8.

Johnson told the board the decision will reduce LMH’s surgery volumes by about 85%. Employees in LMH’s surgery division had begun expressing concern that the decision might cause them to be temporarily laid off from their jobs.

When questioned by the Journal-World after Wednesday’s meeting, a hospital spokesperson said the hospital had not begun furloughing any employees and has a plan to avoid any furloughs in the future. In a statement, the hospital said some employees will be asked to take on different job duties during this virus period.

“We are committed to looking for alternative, purposeful work so that staff can continue to contribute with their colleagues,” the hospital said via a written statement. “Staff may be asked to work in an alternative role, on a different schedule and/or in a manner that is different than their primary job function.”

As hospital trustee Tom Sloan said during Wednesday’s meeting, “there are people with titles pushing patients around floors.” Sloan said he had talked to several employees in the hospital who said they were happy to take on the new types of work if it meant that it allowed them to remain continuously employed.

Johnson said it was important for the hospital to have a workforce that was flexible and ready to respond to what may be a wave of activity in coming weeks.

“I think we likely will see a surge in COVID-19 and will call people and ask them to be part of a community response,” Johnson said. “We will want them to be here and we will need them to be here.”

Johnson told board members it was too early to make estimates of how the virus outbreak will impact the hospital’s finances. LMH finished 2019 with a nearly $16 million operating loss, its worst financial performance in recent memory. Johnson, though, said the hospital continues to have strong cash reserves, and said January and February financial results had shown improvements.

“We will serve this community, do what we need to do and emerge well in hand,” Johnson told the board.

Johnson, though, said he expects the virus to have major impacts on the U.S economy, which will create both financial and health challenges.

“I think we can see from the news that there is the likelihood of hundreds of thousands of people without work for an extended period of time, and when people go without work, life gets scary,” Johnson said.

In other news, trustees were told:

• The hospital is exploring whether it can temporarily start a day care center for the children of its employees now that the school year has been largely canceled. Hospital officials said there are challenges with insurance requirements, among other issues. Johnson said the hospital has reached out to the school district to determine if the district has any space that the hospital could use for such a purpose.

• Longtime trustee Joanne Hurst resigned from the board for health reasons. Hurst was the board’s chair and its most experienced member. She had served for 11 years over the course of two appointments to the board. Local banker Cindy Yulich was elected Wednesday to serve as board chair, a position she previously has held.

More coverage: Coronavirus (COVID-19)

As the pandemic continues, the Journal-World will be making coverage of COVID-19 available outside of the paywall on LJWorld.com.

Find all coverage of city, county and state responses to the virus at: ljworld.com/coronavirus/

What to do if you think you may have COVID-19

Patients who have symptoms — difficulty breathing, cough and fever — should stay home, immediately isolate themselves from others and call their health care providers. Patients should never show up unannounced at a medical office or hospital. Instead, they should call ahead to explain their symptoms and give health care workers the ability to minimize the risk to others.

If patients do not have health care providers, they may call the Lawrence Douglas-County health department’s coronavirus line, 785-856-4343.

For updated information on the outbreak, Kansas residents can email COVID-19@ks.gov or call 866-534-3463 (866-KDHEINF), which is staffed 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday; and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.

More information can be found through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment’s website or the Lawrence-Douglas County Public Health website.


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