Fort Scott residents fighting to save ER services

photo by: KCUR File

Fort Scott is set to lose emergency room services on Dec. 20.

When Fort Scott’s Mercy Hospital closed in early 2019, the community of 7,550 people in southeast Kansas briefly lost its emergency room. Mayor Matthew Wells remembers the time without an ER clearly.

“I watched several people, two in particular that I’ve known my whole life, die with injuries sustained that very easily could have been resolved in an ER,” Wells said.

Now, the town is once again in that position after the community’s stand-alone ER closed, leaving residents to travel at least 20 miles to the nearest emergency center and raising concerns about attracting new residents and businesses. Local officials are scrambling to bring in a new provider but are running into regulatory hurdles.

After Mercy Hospital closed its doors in 2019, a nonprofit Catholic health system based in Pittsburg, Ascension Via Christi, stepped in to provide emergency room services. But recently, citing financial hardship and a decline in patients, Ascension announced the company would be leaving town Dec. 20.

“After exploring the options available, it was clear that this was the only option for us,” Drew Talbott, president of Ascension Via Christi Hospital in Pittsburg, said in a release. “There are other providers in the region positioned to serve the residents of Fort Scott and neighboring communities.”

Wells said while he is thankful for the services Ascension provided Fort Scott, the departure is devastating to the community he loves so much.

“I’m a person who believes that I’ve been called into this position to take care of these people,” he said. “I always like to say that I’m for people. And I love these people.”

A ‘definite blow’

The closest hospital to Fort Scott is about 25 minutes away across the state line in Nevada, Missouri. In Kansas, the closest hospital is in Pittsburg, a more than 40-minute drive from Fort Scott. Fort Scott resident Anne Dare said some locals might not make it that far.

Dare said before her in-laws passed away, they relied heavily on the Fort Scott ER. Oftentimes, she explained, all it took was a couple of hours in the ER to resolve their issues.

Dare said she worries not having a hospital or ER could stifle the community’s growth.

“Losing an ER would be a definite blow to our community across the board,” Dare said. “There’s some great things happening in Fort Scott right now and in our county, and we want that to continue. And one of the vital pieces is having an ER.”

Dare said she is urging her neighbors to contact lawmakers about the challenges.

“The squeaky wheel gets the grease. And if our own residents can’t keep hounding state officials for licensing,” Dare said, “and things that are needed to have an ER continue, it’s going to be a real sad day for Fort Scott.”

Bringing an ER back

Fort Scott is the county seat of Bourbon County. Together, city and county officials are working on a solution that might help them retain emergency room services.

Bourbon County Commissioner Clinton Beth said another provider, Amberwell Health, has offered to run the emergency room when Ascension departs. Currently, they are working on getting Amberwell licensed as a freestanding emergency room, but they’re running into legal roadblocks.

“Our goal is obviously to maintain an emergency department. And Amberwell is willing to do that,” Beth said. “At this point, it is a licensing issue”

According to Beth, Amberwell is requesting a subsidy of $1.5 million to begin operations in Fort Scott. The county has pledged $500,000 and Fort Scott has pledged $600,000.

“Some of the rules and laws are, in my opinion, a hindrance to rural health care,” Beth said. “It is frustrating. (It) keeps me up at night.”

Wells said that in addition to trying to bring Amberwell in as a standalone ER, city officials are hoping to re-designate the ER as a rural emergency hospital. The new federal designation became effective at the start of this year.

Under that program, Fort Scott’s ER would receive a 5% increase in Medicare payments and monthly payments totaling up to $3 million in federal funding a year.

But regulations are getting in the way of that change. Wells said because Mercy Hospital originally closed before the cutoff date of Dec. 27, 2020, the ER is not eligible for the rural emergency hospital designation. Wells said to re-designate, lawmakers may have to amend the requirements.

“I’m just encouraging everybody within my community to take an active role to start to contact the state and federal legislators to try to push this through faster because this is a matter of life and death to my community,” Wells said.

For now, as city and county officials wait for licensing, the county’s emergency services are preparing for a potential surge in calls.

Bourbon County EMS Director Teri Hulsey said they are “opening the job pool” to increase EMS staff. Normally, Hulsey said she staffs two ambulances 24/7, but after the closure, it’s possible she will need to add another.

“We’re just going to have to see where we’re at. See what the call volume is like,” Hulsey said.

— Bek Shackelford-Nwanganga reports for Kansas News Service.


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