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Carthage Area Hospital seeks to continue improvement

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CARTHAGE — Looking back a year ago at struggles the Carthage Area Hospital faced, one might have questioned its future.

Last November, former Chief Executive Officer Walter S. Becker was forced to retire, and from there, an administrative reorganization occurred as the hospital delved into mounting financial woes and rumors of future trouble. The hospital’s board of directors hired interim CEO Adil Ameer to make small leaps toward progress and keep hospital doors open.

“Since I’ve been here over a year, in my opinion, things have improved for this organization in every aspect,” he said. “Our revenue seems to be going up because our utilization has gone up. It’s been steadily increasing the past 12 months.”

Expenses have gone done, Mr. Ameer said, as some hospital-owned community and school-based clinics have closed. The hospital’s receivables are being processed, and billing is becoming less of an issue. Before Mr. Becker’s departure, bills weren’t being processed efficiently, many bills were not being paid on time and accounts languished.

Another noted success, which is most important, Mr. Ameer said, is the hospital’s retirement of its long-term debt. A $9.1 million cloud hung over the organization until the hospital secured a grant of that amount earlier this year to pay off debt, giving the hospital a clean balance sheet.

“Resources we have now can let us look at new programs and services,” he said. “That also reduced our expenses; the debt cost us $1 million” in interest.

He said the hospital’s focus over the past 12 months has been to streamline resources and create efficiencies for a more effective product.

“The first 12 months was a cleanup,” Mr. Ameer said. “It’s very important we still have to work all the way through this. We have our hands full with some issues we’re dealing with.”

From here on out, he said, he and other administrators will ask themselves, “Where do our priorities lie?”

As the hospital looks at ways to grow, create new revenue streams and further reduce expenses, he said, it is also faced with setbacks it cannot control, such as reduced reimbursement rates from Medicare, Medicaid and other third-party payers.

“It becomes more acute for rural hospitals such as Carthage Area Hospital,” he said. “One big thing is to look for adequate reimbursement, then accounting for any drop in utilization, then technological advancement — both clinical as in new equipment and medical delivery, and then health-information technology.”

Carthage Area Hospital, as well as many throughout the north country, also faces the shift from inpatient to outpatient care. Mr. Ameer said years ago certain procedures that may have required a five-day stay in the hospital, which generated revenue, now either require a couple of days’ stay or have completely shifted to outpatient care.

Hospitals then must look at how to improve and add outpatient services to make up for that loss of income. Mr. Ameer said that is a revolving plan of Carthage Area Hospital’s, and something the board hopes to do with input from Fort Drum representatives to make sure neighboring soldiers also receive health care.

Through many struggles here, there have also been many successes. Mr. Ameer said Meadowbrook Terrace, the hospital’s 60-bed assisted living facility on Cole Road, town of Champion, is a testament to the hospital’s commitment to the community.

“That’s very important for us because as Americans get older, there’s a greater need for senior facilities,” he said. “The second piece is it’ll provide opportunities for sharing resources with the hospital.”

While the hospital has made significant strides throughout the past year, the journey to improvement is far from over. As many health-care organizations face tough financial times, the fear of upcoming changes or closure will always be there, Mr. Ameer said.

“Every health-care organization is extremely important to the community they serve,” he said. “The critical need for hospitals in small communities is high. All human beings have a tremendous sense of urgency, but everything takes its sweet time. As long as we see incremental progress, it gives us a sense of accomplishment.”

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