When Cherri Waites came to work as chief financial officer of Cloud County Health Center 11 months ago, she knew she faced a tough task. About a month into the new job, the Missouri native and transplanted Texan learned the results of the most recent financial audit of the hospital: “The auditors didn’t know if we were going to make it to the end of the year.”
Drastic action had to be taken.
“We cut benefits, we cut salaries, nine nurses left,” she recalled as she spoke to those gathered for the Community Needs Forum at the Nazareth Motherhouse this afternoon. “As you can imagine, morale was down.” So was the number of patients — called the census — on any given day.
The struggling hospital faced $1.8 million in loans that were due, and the bills were going unpaid for up to four months.
It seemed that she was in charge of a financial hole that just kept getting deeper.
Then it got worse.
Don Bates, the hospital CEO who had hired her away from a small community medical center in Palacios, Texas, abruptly quit in March. With barely eight months at CCHC, Waites was named interim chief executive officer.
That title was made permanent three weeks ago.
But as Waites recaps the past 11 months, her energy, enthusiasm for Concordia and determination are clear.
By mid-January, she recalled, “The census starts to go up and the finances started to come back around.”
Since that audit at the end of September 2014, the hospital had received a rebate from the federal government on money it had spent for its electronic records system — and it used much of those funds to pay $800,000 on its outstanding loans and $400,000 to catch up on its accounts payable.
The hospital has also been able to re-instate some employee benefits, give a $1-an-hour across-the-board pay increases and re-fill some vacant staff positions.
“How could we do that in nine and a half months?” she asked her audience of about three dozen at today’s forum. “Prayer — lots of prayer.”
“The people who stayed have such heart, such commitment to this hospital,” she added, “and the community has turned around and come back.”
That is what has to happen to make the hospital healthy — and Waites is putting her considerable energy toward that goal.
One part is meetings like today’s working lunch, where she encouraged people who may see specialists in Salina or elsewhere to have their lab tests done at CCHC. Or, she said, if you have orthopedic surgery done someplace else, tell the doctor you want to do your physical therapy “here at home, where it’s more convenient.”
Another effort is continuing to recruit doctors from Salina, Manhattan and beyond to see patients for a day or two a week or a month at CCHC. The roster currently numbers nearly 20 and includes specialists in everything from audiology to urology.
The next step in that direction, Waites said, will be telemedicine, where a patient in Concordia can connect with a specialist anywhere via an interactive videoconference.
“On the East and West coasts, telemedicine has been growing for 15 or 20 years,” she said, “but it’s just now coming to the Midwest. And now that we’re going that way, doctors are calling us.”
The initial investment for the hi-tech videoconferencing equipment, along with specialized monitors and other “peripherals,” is high, she said, but telemedicine will ensure that patients in rural areas continue to have access to high quality specialized medical care.
That’s what CCHC will continue to provide, she believes.
While acknowledging that operating in a building that opened in 1951 remains a challenge, Waites said, “The public will overlook the old building if it’s clean and well-maintained and has good equipment and staff that’s well trained. Those have to be our goals.”
In addition to Waites’ presentation, today’s working lunch included a variety of updates on coming events in Concordia:
** National Night Out is the first Tuesday in August, and this will be the fifth year Concordia has taken part. Neighborhoods are encouraged to join the party Aug. 4 by holding any kind of gathering — potluck, ice cream social, picnic or any other kind of party — to get to know your neighbors. Organizers can register their neighborhood gathering by calling Holly Brown at 243-2113, ext. 1225, and those registered will receive National Night Out balloons and a yard sign to mark your location. Concordia Police officers will also stop by registered parties to answer questions, offer neighborhood safety tips and hand out glow necklaces for the kids.
** This year for the first time, the Concordia Year of Peace Committee will kick off its Civility Pledge signature drive as part of National Night Out. The 2015 signature drive, called “Make Your Mark,” calls for citizens to make a commitment to be civil in public debate and discussions. The signature drive will continue through September.
** On Aug. 13, there will be two presentations designed to alert people about new and dangerous illegal drugs. Titled “What You Need to Know: New Drugs Our Kids Already Know About,” the presentation is by Lynn Smith of Prevention and Recovery Services Inc. of Topeka. There will be a 1 p.m. presentation that will be repeated at 7 p.m.; both will be in Cook Theatre at Cloud County Community College, and is being sponsored by the Cloud County Chemical Dependency Committee.
** The Cook Theatre will also be the location of a very special presentation Sept. 15 by former football All-American Don McPherson, who followed his college career at Syracuse with several years playing in the National Football League and the Canadian Football League. He was unanimously elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2008.
For the past 20 years, he has been a national leader and advocate for the prevention of sexual and domestic violence.
In Concordia, he will speak at 1 p.m. at Concordia High School to students from throughout the North-Central Kansas area, and then at 7 p.m. he will give a public presentation at the Cook Theatre. There is no charge for either program; his visit to Concordia is sponsored by the Concordia Year of Peace Committee and is funded through a grant from the Community Foundation for Cloud County and donations from other organizations.
Today’s “working lunch” was the 29th gathering of the Community Needs Forum, which grew out of informal meetings between the Sisters of St. Joseph and community leaders in the fall of 2008. The first working lunch was held in January 2009, and the continuing gatherings have identified what participants see as the greatest needs in the community and have established smaller groups to seek solutions. The working lunches continue to provide an opportunity for updates on projects and a clearinghouse for new ideas.
The 30th gathering will be Wednesday, Oct. 14, at the Nazareth Motherhouse. Everyone is invited to take part; you don’t have to have attended earlier lunches to join the process now.