It has to be a strange time for Greenwood Leflore Hospital and the people who work there.

At the same time that they are on high alert to care for people suffering from a novel disease, other parts of the hospital are quieter than normal.

The foot traffic entering the 208-bed facility has slowed considerably. In order to protect patients, medical staff and other employees from the new coronavirus, the hospital beat Gov. Tate Reeves to the punch by implementing major restrictions on visitation. That was followed by a directive to all Mississippi hospitals from the state Department of Health to suspend elective surgeries and other non-emergency procedures so as to preserve the medical supplies hospitals will need to treat COVID-19 if the feared onslaught of cases materializes.

The pandemic has also put on hold deliberations over the publicly owned hospital’s future.

Ten days ago, Stroudwater Associates was scheduled to present to Greenwood, Leflore County and hospital officials the consultants’ recommendations about the best way to position the financially struggling hospital for the future. The presentation got postponed, though, when companies were told they needed to halt non-essential travel until the country got a better grip on the disease.

Robert Collins, president of the Leflore County Board of Supervisors, says that he was expecting the consultants to recommend that the Greenwood hospital either affiliate with or be leased to a larger medical institution.

It will be interesting to see whether the recommendation has been modified as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

Other options mentioned have been the possible sale of the hospital or continuing to operate as an independent entity.

At least in the short term, it’s unlikely that COVID-19 is going to help the hospital’s efforts to get closer to break-even.

Although inpatient admissions have remained fairly stable, outpatient revenues have dropped by about two-thirds since the mandate to halt elective procedures came down, according to hospital officials.

As a result, the hospital’s operating losses, which totaled more than $3 million through the first five months of this fiscal year, will probably escalate in March and April.

The anticipated financial blow could be cushioned by the $2.2 trillion stimulus package that President Trump signed into law on Friday. It includes $100 billion for grants to hospitals and other health-care providers struggling to cope with all of the ramifications created by COVID-19.

Ronnie Stevenson, president of the Greenwood City Council, is counting on the Greenwood hospital getting a slice of that stimulus money. Unlike Collins, who doesn’t believe independence is sustainable for the hospital, Stevenson is hoping there is some way to maintain the status quo.

“I am still for keeping our hospital independently operated, but you do have to listen to common sense,” Stevenson said.

Any stimulus money would be a stop-gap measure. Longer-lasting relief would come if Mississippi’s Republican leadership would drop its opposition to Medicaid expansion.

Nearly all of the Greenwood hospital’s losses are attributed to how much it has to spend to care for patients who are uninsured and cannot pay for their treatment.

Before the Affordable Care Act was passed during the Obama years, the hospital would get significant subsidies from the federal government to defray the cost of this charity care. Those payments got slashed, however, on the assumption that the states would more than make up the difference by going along with extending Medicaid coverage to the working poor. Thirty-six states and the District of Columbia have. Mississippi is one of 14 states that haven’t.

Even though the federal government is picking up at least 90 percent of the cost of Medicaid expansion, Tate Reeves has been unbudging in his opposition, both as lieutenant governor and during his successful campaign for governor.

Perhaps the coronavirus will finally open Reeves’ eyes to just how critical hospitals are to the health and livelihood of a rural community. Greenwood Leflore Hospital is certainly critical to ours.

Even though the financials are not yet showing it, there has been a feeling that the hospital may be starting to turn the corner. Gary Marchand, the seasoned interim CEO, seems to have boosted morale and re-engaged the medical staff. The hospital board, following last year’s shakeup, is working in collaboration with the administration and doctors rather than at odds.

It’s unfortunate that just as the hospital was resolving some of its uncertainties, the coronavirus comes along to add a new layer of them. The situation could cause the owners of the hospital — the city and county — to be cautious about making any other drastic changes. Such hesitation might be a good thing.

Contact Tim Kalich at 581-7243 or tkalich@gwcommonwealth.com.

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