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Report highlights need to privatize state-owned hospitals

CHARLESTON — A new report said the state needs to consider a commission to look at partially or fully privatizing the state’s seven hospitals.

The Public Policy Foundation of West Virginia released a report Monday morning calling for the creation of a Hospital Facilities Authority to look at each of the state-owned hospitals, which include long-term care, psychiatric hospitals and nursing homes.

According to the report, authored by Dr. Terry Wallace, these hospitals suffer from chronic underfunding and high turnover in staff. These issues combined cause the hospitals to be underutilized, with more money being wasted on keeping the facilities open and maintaining the building infrastructure.

The hospitals include Hopemont Hospital in Preston County, John Manchin Sr. Health Care Center in Fairmont, Mildred Mitchell-Bateman Hospital in Cabell County, William R. Sharpe Jr. Hospital in Lewis County, Welch Community Hospital in McDowell County, Jackie Withrow Hospital in Raleigh County, and Lakin Hospital in Mason County.

“West Virginia is decades behind almost all other states in transitioning their acute and long-term care facilities to structures with greater flexibility that will allow them to attract and retain nurses and other health care providers,” Wallace said.

The facilities are managed by the Office of Health Facilities at the state Department of Health and Human Resources, but the office is hamstrung by personnel and purchasing rules managed by the Department of Administration. Because of those rules, the office is unable to offer better pay to recruit nurses and staff.

“Hospital officials told us that when they asked for the authority to offer nurses $3 to $4 an hour more, the Division of Personnel denied their request saying, ‘If you paid them more, we would have to pay other nurses more,” Wallace said.

The staffing shortage has affected how many patients these facilities can take in. At Hopemont Hospital in Terra Alta, only 48 of its 98 beds are being used, while the facility has a 50-person wait list. While the facility is authorized for 178 employees, it operates at 107 employees. To fill some positions, Hopemont had to hire contract staff at a greater cost.

“Right now, many of our facilities are operating well below what their occupancy capacity is,” said state Sen. Greg Boso, the new chairman of the Senate Government Organization Committee. “As an effect of that, we’re less efficient with the operation of those facilities, which costs us additional dollars. We’re not able to care for the number of people we could in the various communities.”

Jackie Withrow Hospital, a nursing home facility in Beckley, is not only affected by staffing shortages, but severe maintenance issues. According to DHHR, the building was approved by the legislature in 1927 and opened in 1930 as Pinecrest Hospital, a sanitarium to isolate tuberculosis patients from the public.

The age of the buildings has caused significant costs. According to the report, a DHHR study found it would take $70 million to make infrastructure upgrades at the facilities. Since then, that cost has increased to $100 million.

The report takes no issues with the services offered by these hospitals and the need for these services. But it does place blame on the state for a top-down bureaucratic way of managing the facilities that causes the hospitals to not fully meet their potential.

Boso, a Republican from Nicholas County, said his committee will take a look at the report during the 2019 legislative session that starts Wednesday. One of the issues Boso wants to look at is whether the state should be in the business of running hospitals.

“I support the report. It’s one of those things I’d like to see accomplished,” Boso said. “We need to find out whether or not our hospitals need to be privatized and if so — for those that need to be privatized — take care of those.”

The solution, according to Wallace, is creating a Hospital Facilities Authority and transferring all hospital operations to this new entity. The authority would be governed by a nine-member board of managers appointed in three-year staggered term by the governor, with the DHHR secretary as a non-voting member. The board would study the possibility of privatizing the hospitals or privatizing specific services.

“The mission of the HFA would be to align each hospital with a privatization model that would best suit their own unique circumstances,” Wallace said.

The authority would present plans for each hospital, solicit proposals from private sector or non-profit health care companies, and would be authorized to undertake any sale or lease.

The authority would also make sure no interruption of services occurs and that current level of care is maintained.

“What we need is a fresh look by some people involved in a board of managers that will allow us to really take advantage of optimizing the impact that our taxpayer dollars have in caring for those who really need that specialized care here in the state,” Boso said.

(Adams can be contacted at sadams@newsandsentinel.com)

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