County officials are expressing their frustration over the closure of the Yadkin Valley Community Hospital as the legal drama over the facility continues to escalate.
“Balderdash,” County Chairman Kevin Austin said in regard to the most recent court document filed on behalf of former hospital operator HMC. “If it weren’t so sad I think I’d have to laugh at how ridiculous HMC has been through all this and the things they’ve done prior to and since closing, particularly since closing. It’s been so mean-spirited I would say.”
In February of this year, the county commissioners began a process meant to find and establish a new medical provider in the county-owned hospital building. At the time, Austin said they hoped to find a group that would be a “better community partner” than HMC, also known as CAH10, the company which operated the facility since 2010.
On May 22, HMC unexpectedly shut down the facility despite a restraining order for the hospital to remain open. Though a federal judge found the group in contempt of court for defying the restraining order and ordered them to pay damages to the county, HMC continues to fight that ruling.
On Aug. 4, the group filed a memorandum in opposition to notice of Yadkin County’s plan for reopening the hospital and its damages and fees. The brief filed by HMC states that “neither contract, read individually or collectively, forbids CAH 10 from closing the hospital before the end of the lease period.”
“It is a continuing tragedy for the citizens of Yadkin County that the former hospital operator sees fit to continue to make false statements about their violations of the law and medical ethics in their unlawful closure of the Yadkin Valley Community Hospital,” Austin stated in a press release. “CAH Acquisition Company 10, LLC d/b/a Yadkin Valley Community Hospital (CAH) has now claimed in a filing in Federal Court that they owe little or no damages to the county for their wrongful acts although the judge found them in contempt of court for their failure to obey a court order and found their testimony to be absolutely untrue. The Yadkin County Board of Commissioners will continue to fight in court to recover our damages and will continue to work hard for the citizens of the county to have the medical care they expect and deserve.”
Friday, the county filed its own brief in response which states that HMC’s filing was an attempt to re-litigate the issues already decided by the court.
“CAH 10 was ordered not to cease operations of the hospital, which it did, with defendants’ active involvement. This court held all defendants in civil contempt for their knowing violation. Defendants’ desire to reopen issues already decided by this court is improper should be rejected,” states the brief filed by the county.
As to HMC’s claim that the lease agreement did not require them to remain open through a certain date, Austin questioned why they would have signed the agreement had it not been their intention to remain open through the given date.
“Why do you state the obvious? They asked for a lease extension. Why would we assume anything other than they were going to operate through July 31st?” Austin said.
The final lease amendment signed by HMC notes that unless a transaction was negotiated with another group to purchase assets and rights to operate the hospital that the lease would remain in effect for the term set forth in the document, which was July 31.
As the legal drama escalates, so do the attorney fees the county is having to shell out to continue the battle. County Manager Lisa Hughes said the legal fees are just part of the growing expense the county is having to incur since the hospital’s unexpected closure.
Since the closure, the county has had EMS personnel on site at the hospital around the clock in case any residents were to need emergency medical aid. Handling the medical records and maintenance of the building are just a few other expenses for which the county is now footing the bill.
“The county has assumed possession and responsibility for the physicians’ medical records, as well as the hospital medical records. The physicians’ files were not filed and were laying everywhere; the hospital medical files were laying around not even in charts. Some charts have not even been signed by the attending physician. The county has had to hire staff and buy supplies to get the records in order and to provide them, free of charge, to citizens,” Hughes explained.
She went on to describe other issues at the hospital that are costing the county additional funds.
“While cleaning the facility, we have found used needles that were not disposed of in accordance with OSHA, used processing chemicals still in the x-ray equipment, and equipment that has not been properly maintained and serviced. Proper disposal of the used needles, chemicals and getting the equipment serviced and maintained to standards is costing the county,” she said.
A court document filed by the county last week indicates that costs to the county since the closure of the hospital total around $82,000.
Austin said it is baffling that the company has been so unprofessional with how things have been handled. He said he felt it was irresponsible of HMC as an organization to not help facilitate the change over. One example he gave was the state license which, per the lease agreement, should have been turned over to the county immediately upon closure of the hospital. Instead, Austin instead said they had to “wait and wait and finally beg and ask to get that license back.”
Austin said in HMC’s recent court filing however, they claimed they returned the license as soon as the county requested it.
“Why wouldn’t they proactively do things like that and a lot of other things?” Austin said. “I would say with a clear conscious that the majority of their actions leading up to and since May 22 have been to damage our county and our ability to have a hospital.”
A tractor that belonged to the hospital, a donation from the hospital’s volunteer auxiliary group, was another example of the unprofessional and unusual behavior exhibited by HMC, Austin said.
Austin said the county was advised by former staff at the hospital that the tractor was missing.
“This tractor disappeared and so the tip was that it had been taken to one of the higher-up’s residence,” Austin said. County officials checked the hospital grounds and determined that the tractor was indeed gone from the property.
“It’s such a great illustration of the kind of people they are and were,” Austin said with a disgusted shake of his head. “It took a federal judge to force them to bring that tractor back.”
During court proceedings, HMC indicated that the tractor had been taken to another hospital property in Washington County, but that it would take three weeks for them to return it to Yadkin County.
Austin questioned why it would take such a long period of time to bring the tractor back. He also said he expected that the group would contact the county when they planned to return the tractor, but that was also not the case. Overnight the week of July 27, the tractor returned to the property.
“It returned under cover of darkness,” Austin said. “You’d think there would be some sort of coordinated hand off, not some sneaky [return] under cover of darkness.”
Hughes also expressed her frustration over how things have been handled by HMC and the effect it has had on area residents.
“It’s very apparent that HMC Corporate and RCHA Corporate did not care about the consequences of their actions,” Hughes said. “Their decision to close the hospital directly impacted those citizens who were receiving treatment in the emergency room that night, citizens in general who cannot see their regular physicians who were employees of HMC/CAH 10, citizens who would need the emergency room services, patients who had scheduled surgeries, physical therapy, lab work or x-rays who were not notified in time to make other arrangements and the employees who worked there and didn’t know if they had a job or not until the week after closure. Some of those employees are still unemployed.”
“This is not an issue about the relationship between HMC and the county board of commissioners. It’s about a corporation that the county trusted to provide quality medical services to its citizens and sold them the hospital operations and leased its building to provide those services. The corporation failed to do so and breached its legally binding contract with the county.”
The ongoing legal battle continues to cause problems with the process of reopening the facility, Austin said. No information is available at this time on how things are proceeding with a new group to potentially take over the operation and reopen the hospital. Austin said the physicians’ practice at the hospital could potentially reopen well before the rest of the facility could.
Kitsey E. Burns may be reached at 336-679-2341 or on Twitter @RippleReporterK.