LACONIA — LRGHealthcare will attempt to return to normal operations, but the process will take more than a month and is complicated by questions of financing, staffing and patient demand, CEO and President Kevin Donovan said Monday.
Meanwhile, the future of the health system rests with a long-sought merger that could help ease crippling debt and set it on a more secure path.
Early this month, Gov. Chris Sununu said hospitals could resume non-urgent procedures that were postponed to create adequate capacity for a potential spike in COVID-19 cases.
First steps toward more robust services at LRGH begin this week as patients are seen, tested and prepared for procedures next week that could include things like colonoscopies and biopsies.
“The biggest impact this week will be the reopening of a number of specialty surgery clinics,” he said in an interview. “We are starting to see patients this week in orthopedics and general surgery locations and in urology and ENT, otolaryngology.
“Next week, we open up the endoscopy center, outpatient surgery center at LRGH and the Hillside Ambulatory surgery center in Gilford.”
Many of the patients who will be seen were scheduled for medical procedures before LRGH cut back care and outpatient services.
“There might be people who might have got one cataract done before the pandemic and now need to get the second eye taken care of,” Donovan said.
Other procedures that can now be scheduled include MRIs and CT scans.
The not-for-profit health system, which runs Lakes Region General Hospital and Franklin Regional Hospital, has been focusing only on emergency, critical care and COVID-19 patients. It furloughed 600 employees, almost half its workforce.
Donovan said the first-step in the reopening of services may re-employ 50 to 75 of the furloughed employees.
Patients who undergo the kind of procedures that require general anesthetic will first be tested for COVID-19. Medical practices will maintain limited patient numbers to avoid potential exposure to the disease.
Next steps are still being planned.
“I think what the hope would be is that, by the end of June, we'd be able to bring back many of our areas,” he said. “We are discussing that every week we will bring back a blend of programs.”
For example, on a weekly basis, a new primary care practice, medical specialty and hospital department may be brought back into service.
If a surge of COVID-19 patients unexpectedly materializes, non-emergent services could be scaled back.
A slow return to more normal services should help LRGH’s bottom line, but its finances remain shaky.
The system lost $20 million last fiscal year, before revenue took a hit from the postponement of profit-generating elective services.
Government support allowed LRGH to keep its doors open and should give it some breathing room through the delay between resuming these services and actually collecting payment for them.
Sen. Maggie Hassan and four other senators sent a letter Monday to America’s Health Insurance Plans CEO Matt Eyles and Blue Cross Blue Shield Association CEO Scott Serota asking that payments to hospitals be hastened.
“We urge you to emphasize the expedited processing of outstanding claims for services that have already been rendered to ensure that payments to hospitals and other providers are made as quickly as possible, and to commit to prompt reimbursement as hospitals begin to slowly return to routine care and elective procedures,” the letter states.
“Doing so will help to further alleviate the pressure on our hospitals’ finances during this time and ensure they have the resources necessary to invest in surge capacity and return to full service.”
LRGH has received $14.7 million in federal emergency funds and $5.25 million from the state. The state may also allocate to LRGH a portion of a new pot of $20 million being set aside for hospitals.
Donovan said one unanswered question is whether prospective patients will stay away out of fears about COVID-19.
“We’ve seen patients who have said, ‘I am uncomfortable going to a hospital setting,’” he said. “With time-sensitive care needs, will people say, ‘I’m willing to deal with this chronic pain. I’m willing to forgo the cataract surgery.’”
Also unknown is how many of LRGH’s furloughed employees would come back. Some are on a medical leave of absence, some are taking care of family, some might not feel comfortable working in the current environment, some have resigned or said they are looking for other opportunities, Donovan said.
“We need to take into account all those workforce areas,” Donovan said. “We want to be thoughtful.
“If we said today, “We’re going to do everything just as we did on March 1, we wouldn’t have the staff to do that.”
Meanwhile, LRGH officials look forward to the day when they can announce the organization has merged with a larger health care company.
“My message to the community has been consistent,” Donovan said. “We recognize the difficulty of some of the decisions we made to temporarily close some of our outpatient programs.
“I said when services come back, I hope people give us the opportunity to earn their service. We want to be here to help their health care needs. We’re appreciative of the people who have put ads in paper, or white ribbons or people who made masks.
“Those who are concerned about our future, we ask that they give us a chance in the not-too-distant future to be able to share more information.”
To contact Rick Green, email firstname.lastname@example.org.