hospital fee
Plans to reopen the former AllianceHealth hospital in Clinton, Oklahoma, are underway in 2023. (Tres Savage)

It’s taking longer than expected, but residents in Clinton should once again have a hospital operating in their community soon, while those living in Woodward hope to experience a seamless continuation of hospital services during an operational transition later this year.

Plans call for the emergency room of Clinton Regional Hospital to open Oct. 30, while INTEGRIS Health has been selected to be the next health care operator for the Woodward hospital, effective Dec. 1. AllianceHealth, a private hospital management company, decided last year to stop operating both hospitals, which resulted in the Clinton facility closing and left Woodward leaders looking at other options.

Keeping each hospital open is vital for both communities, as losing one could create a domino effect of diminished health care services with physicians leaving a community and clinics and pharmacies closing. Rural hospitals in Oklahoma also stand as key economic engines and often are leading employers in their communities.

In Clinton, a city of about 8,600 people about 80 minutes west of Oklahoma City, plans are to have the hospital operating under the governance of a local board this fall. Ideally, it would fully open around Thanksgiving, said Clinton city manager Robert Johnston.

City officials are looking at the possibility of a hospital management company operating the hospital or leasing it to a larger hospital, he said.

“No decision has been made yet,” Johnston said.

In March, an urgent care clinic, managed by the private enterprise Carrus Health, opened within an adjacent doctors’ building.

“It has filled part of the medical need,” Johnston said. “Doctors and local physicians have remained in place.”

The Oklahoma State Department of Health issued a license for Clinton Regional Hospital on Aug. 1. In an email accompanying the license, Jerry Martin, administrative programs manager of the medical facilities service and protective health services of OSDH, advised Johnston that issuance of a state hospital operation license does not immediately guarantee certification by or complete enrollment with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

“OSDH has repeatedly advised various representatives for the Clinton Regional Hospital, and will continue to advise, that CRH is required to meet all applicable CMS regulations for certification,” Martin wrote.

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‘We’re trying to be very good stewards’

Both Clinton and Woodward received bad news late last year from the company providing health services that it was not renewing its lease for either hospital. Last December, AllianceHealth provided Woodward officials one year’s notice of its intent to stop leasing the city-owned hospital. The same company also operated the city-owned hospital in Clinton and told city officials last year it was leaving by the end of 2022 after gradually reducing services.

AllianceHealth closed Clinton Regional Hospital on Dec. 31. But instead of transferring state and federal licenses to the city of Clinton as previous operators had done, the company canceled the permits. Reapplication for those licenses took additional time and also required the city to spend millions of dollars on upgrades to the hospital, which was built in 1973.

The city didn’t have that type of cash available. However, when the hospital was built, the city of Clinton operated it, and a fund was established to pay for long-term needs. The fund started out with about $6 million in it, but interest and revenue over the years increased the balance to $11.6 million.

To access money from that fund to reopen the hospital, the Clinton Hospital Authority, comprised of Clinton City Council members, must receive approval from voters.

In March, those voters demonstrated how much they value having a local hospital by giving near-unanimous support for a proposal to authorize use of the $11.6 million to reopen Clinton Regional Hospital. The vote passed 1,221 to 81 (93.7 percent) in the Custer County community. Failure of the issue would have functionally kept the hospital closed, forcing residents to continue driving to the Weatherford hospital about 15 minutes to the east along I-40.

Since then, the CHA has been reformed, with most of the members of a hospital advisory board replacing Clinton City Council members, and the body has been making upgrades to the hospital building and buying equipment, Johnston said. About $7 million remains in the hospital fund.

“We’re trying to be very good stewards of that available funding,” he said.

The licensing process with the Oklahoma State Department of Health took longer than expected because AllianceHealth not only terminated the Medicare agreement and state license but did not cooperate with the CHA to transfer the license, Johnston said.  As a result, it took longer to clarify whether the hospital could be licensed as is or would require millions of dollars in updates to comply with provisions of newer facilities.

“Over many months, the Oklahoma State Department of Health has worked diligently with the city of Clinton and clearly communicated the requirements of opening their local hospital,” said Erica Rankin-Rily, OSDH public information officer, in an emailed statement. “OSDH has been consistent and clear on the process, never wavering on the actions that must be taken to ensure patient safety and meet the regulatory responsibilities required of the OSDH.”

With a state license now in hand, the city can begin the process to reopen the hospital.

The next step is for the hospital to be surveyed by an accreditation organization to reinstitute the agreement between the hospital and Medicare. The hospital will also need to rehire employees because it was unable to retain staff as the length of the closure grew. Supplies and equipment will also have to be restocked.

“A number of things need to be done before we can reopen,” said Ken Baker, chairman of the CHA, in a statement. “But having the license allows us to start the process. We expect the rest of the process to be much smoother.”

The license issued by OSDH is for a 22-bed facility. The hospital previously had 56 beds. At one time, it employed 200 people. Officials said the Clinton Regional Hospital probably will reopen with about 50 employees, a staffing number that may eventually increase to about 100.

“Having accessible health care is a critical part of a healthy population,” Mayor David Berrong said in a statement. “We are proud of the work that has been done by so many and the unwavering support of the community to make this happen.”

The city operated its hospital for the first 25 years of its existence, but then the city hired outside operators. Different private companies operated the hospital the past 12 years.

AllianceHealth, which runs hospitals in Durant, Madill, Ponca City and Woodward, has been shrinking its footprint in Oklahoma. In 2020, the company relinquished operations of the Midwest City hospital. Last year, it ended its operations of a medical facility in Seminole and announced it would not renew the lease for the hospital in Woodward when it expires Nov. 30, 2023.

When INTEGRIS Health announced it was acquiring operations of the Woodward hospital, it also announced it was taking over the Ponca City hospital from AllianceHealth.

“We have a dedicated and skilled team of providers who have and will continue to provide safe, quality care for our patients,” Chris Mendoza, chief executive officer of AllianceHealth Ponca City, said in the INTEGRIS press release. “We’ll work closely with the leadership of INTEGRIS Health to support a smooth integration with their organization.”

Smooth transition expected at Woodward hospital

AllilanceHealth hospital in Woodward, Oklahoma. (Provided)

Woodward city manager Shaun Barnett said INTEGRIS Health, the largest Oklahoma-owned nonprofit health system in the state, will begin operating the Woodward hospital effective Dec. 1. Until then, AllianceHealth will continue to run the hospital and deliver health care services for patients, he said.

Barnett said the partnership with INTEGRIS Health will establish Woodward as a regional source for health care services. Woodward, a city of nearly 12,000 people about 125 miles northwest of Oklahoma City, is the largest city in a nine-county area.

“The city owns the building and INTEGRIS will take that over,” he said. “They will be transitioning the operations of the hospital, including staff. Most won’t even see the difference when it switches over. So, everything will operate as is.”

Identifying a new provider was a top priority and of utmost importance for the benefit and assurance of the community, dedicated health care professionals, staff and support personnel, Barnett said.

“At no point will the hospital close during the transition” he said. “Everything will still continue to function. Behind the scenes will be all the transition.”

The 87-bed hospital offers inpatient and outpatient services, as well as medical and surgical procedures.

“INTEGRIS Health’s mission is partnering with people to live healthier lives. We are thrilled to partner with the city of Woodward to advance our mission by serving more lives in the western part of our state,” Timothy Pehrson, INTEGRIS president and CEO, said in a statement.

(Update: This article was updated at 9:30 a.m. Friday, Aug. 25, to include additional information about the Ponca City hospital.)