Greenwood Leflore Hospital could close by the end of November as negotiations between the hospital and the University of Mississippi Medical Center stall, interim CEO Gary Marchand told staff in a memo Tuesday.
After waves of layoffs and service reductions over the last few months, hospital administrators had hoped to stay afloat until the end of next month and then transition operations to UMMC by early December. They are now looking at further cuts “that might allow certain services to continue into 2023,” Marchand wrote.
“In the absence of this plan, the closure of the hospital remains a possibility,” the memo said.
The two parties had been negotiating a lease agreement with an eye toward Nov. 17, the date of the last scheduled meeting for the Institutions of Higher Learning, which would need to approve any lease agreement.
The Greenwood Commonwealth reported that Marchand said UMMC told him Tuesday they had run out of time to finalize documents ahead of that meeting.
Federal and state regulations and questions around the hospital’s outstanding debts remain stumbling blocks in the negotiations. The Commonwealth reported that Greenwood Leflore owes Medicare $5.6 million for advance payments it got when the COVID-19 pandemic started. UMMC does not want to take on that debt, and the Delta hospital is hoping its owners – the city of Greenwood and Leflore County – will step in.
Marchand and hospital spokeswoman Christine Hemphill were not available for interviews on Wednesday, but on Wednesday afternoon Hemphill provided written answers to questions sent by Mississippi Today.
Marchand met with the Greenwood city council at 9 a.m. Wednesday to discuss whether the city can help pay the hospital’s debts. Hemphill said the city council “acted to fund a letter of credit to resolve their share of the funding gap,” and that the county will meet Friday to discuss the same topic.
She added that the hospital plans to make decisions next week as to what lines of service to cut.
UMMC and Greenwood Leflore have been working on the agreement since the summer. But State Health Officer Dr. Daniel Edney seemed to allude to the ongoing threat to the hospital’s existence during the state board of health meeting earlier this month, when he described health care infrastructure in the Delta as “very fragile” and said at least six hospitals in the region are facing dire financial challenges.
“Despite what’s been reported in the media, currently there are no solutions for those hospitals,” he said. “No one’s coming to the rescue.”
Mississippi Today has reported on the financial struggles at Greenwood Leflore, Sharkey Issaquena Community Hospital, and Delta Health System. Liz Sharlot, the health department’s communications director, said she could not name the other hospitals Edney was alluding to because that information came from “private conversations.”
IHL could hold a special meeting later than Nov. 17. But UMMC told Mississippi Today on Wednesday they are not aware of any plans for that.
The hospital declined to answer other questions about the negotiations.
Gov. Tate Reeves could call a special session of the Legislature to craft a package to keep Greenwood Leflore open, but has given no indication that he will. His office did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
Dr. Roderick Givens, a radiation oncologist at the hospital, attended a meeting for physician staff where Marchand gave updates at 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday. He said Marchand reassured employees that UMMC still intends to pursue the lease agreement.
“That at least satisfied everyone that hey, no one’s walking away from the table,” Givens said.
Givens said the closure of the hospital would further reduce access to health care for Delta communities that are disproportionately low-income.
“It essentially becomes a death sentence to a number of people,” he said.
The 208-bed hospital is also one of the largest employers in the area, so its closure would hurt the local economy as well. According to Hemphill, Greenwood Leflore directly employs 589 people full- and part-time, and the food provider Aramark employs an additional 70 people full-time.
Givens said he didn’t understand why state leadership has not stepped in to help hospitals around the state that are struggling to stay open. Mississippi has one of the country’s highest rates of people without insurance, due to the state’s refusal to expand Medicaid to low-income working adults.
That means that hospitals face a higher burden of providing care for which they will never get paid. Hemphill said that costs Greenwood Leflore about $550,000 every month, around 6 to 7% of the hospital’s total costs.
Mississippi hospitals are also dealing with supply chain and staffing issues that affect small hospitals around the country.
“It’s kind of baffling why there’s not at the state level, at least meaningful conversations that say hey, how can we help?” Givens said. “What is it that the government can do with regards to assistance to keep these hospitals open? It’s kind of a deafening silence.”