Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital officials tried to paint a rosy picture when they reported to Tarpon Springs city commissioners that the hospital has a budget shortfall of $9-million and has laid off some workers.
Chief executive officer Don Evans assured commissioners that this is actually the beginning of a turnaround at the hospital that serves North Pinellas and some south Pasco residents.
Last year, he said, the budget deficit was $10-million.
Sorry, but that's not very reassuring. Consider this: Just before Helen Ellis was "saved" by University Community Health of Tampa eight years ago, the facility reported a budget deficit of only $2.3-million.
The takeover was supposed to be a big step toward stability, but it sounds possible that the financial situation may have worsened instead of improved. City commissioners may want to seek more detail about the hospital's financial health.
It would be a mistake to assume that nothing has improved at Helen Ellis since the takeover. For one thing, the hospital's debts have been paid down. University Community Health provided millions of dollars to help pay off the hospital's bonds, which had caused the facility to drown in debt. The situation was so bad that until University Community Health came along, there was little doubt that the hospital would have to close. There were layoffs and frequent complaints about poor patient care.
Since the takeover, the buzz about poor patient outcomes has quieted. Staffing has seemed more stable. The hospital has upgraded facilities, added some new services, and is even seeking permission to do heart procedures that could lead to certification for open heart surgeries.
Yet if not for a requirement that the hospital periodically report its financial condition to the city, the community might not have known about the serious budget deficit at Helen Ellis. Hospital officials routinely brush aside questions about rumors of money problems.
To try to manage the budget issues, hospital officials recently decided to close Helen Ellis' home health agency to save $400,000 a year. Twenty-three full- and part-time workers were given pink slips. The hospital is trying to recruit more doctors — an effort that has been ongoing for decades. And a plan by a private developer for construction of medical offices on land just north of the hospital could bring in medical specialists, and thus new patients.
Helen Ellis is not the only hospital struggling with budget problems in today's complicated financial environment. One reason is that more and more people who can't afford to pay for their own health care are going to hospital emergency rooms, where they believe the facility will be obligated to treat them. Evans noted that $3-million of the $9-million deficit is because of uncollected bills and indigent cases.
It is important that hospital officials provide complete and accurate information, at regular intervals and whenever asked, about the hospital's financial condition. Residents of North Pinellas feel a special tie to Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital. They want to know its status and that all that can be done is being done to keep the hospital afloat.