BRMC ER

BLUEFIELD — Bluefield and Bluefield, Va., residents were wondering Saturday what will happen to local health care and friends working in that profession when a local hospital closes its services.

The Princeton Community Hospital Board of Directors announced its decision late Friday to permanently close Bluefield Regional Medical Center’s inpatient and ancillary services by July 30. This closure will impact about 340 of BRMC’s employees.

Officials with PCH said in their announcement Friday that it is working with state and federal authorities “to open a provider-based emergency department on the BRMC campus.”

“PCH is working through the details and regulations to open this department as soon as possible, along with the necessary ancillary services to support its function, including lab and x-ray,” the statement said. “The associated physician practices will continue to operate through BRMC.”

Bluefield residents out in Saturday’s sunny weather were wondering how losing BRMC’s medical services would impact them. 

“We’ve got families who grew up in Bluefield, Va., and they won’t want to go all the way to Princeton to go to a hospital,” Carl Madison of Bluefield said. “Is Princeton (Community Hospital) going to have the capacity to handle the people from Bluefield? Personally, I think it’s a big mistake to close.”

Closing BRMC leaves Bluefield residents with choosing between driving to Princeton or Tazewell, Va. for hospital services, Madison added.

The closure means that 340 employees at BRMC will be looking for jobs and PCH said it has open positions in different areas of the hospital and encourages displaced workers to apply for positions for which they are qualified.

“I definitely think it’s going to impact our community,” Scott Polhamus of Bluefield said. “I’m hopeful they can bring our folks into their staff.” 

Lawrence Turner of Bluefield, Va., said he knows people who work at BRMC.

“It’s terrible,” he said. “People who worked there, all those people, where are they going to go? I don’t know how that’s going to impact the community. I just hate it for them. They might have to move and find another hospital.”

Heather Robertson of Bluefield, Va., said news of the pending closure was not a surprise.

“In my opinion, it was just a matter of time,” she stated. “Bluefield has been going downhill for a long time as far as the hospital goes.”

In downtown Bluefield, people were wondering about BRMC’s employees.

“That’s a shame. It’s sad because people have lost their jobs,” Jo Ann Green of Princeton said. “People here don’t need their hospital closed. I had two children born in Bluefield.”

Other people said losing the hospital will make emergency health care less accessible.

“It’s going to make it hard in Bluefield,” Hattie Anderson of Bluefield said. “If somebody has a heart attack, they’ll have to go all the way to Princeton. You’d be dead by then.”

Anderson’s friend, Heather Nelson of Bluefield, said residents could ride a bus to Princeton.

“You got to catch two buses to get to Princeton,” Anderson said.

 The decision to close all services except and emergency department was based on economics, PCH officials stated in their announcement.

“Unfortunately, numerous market factors coupled with the unexpected and dramatic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the further deterioration of BRMC’s financial situation,” the PCH statement said. “In addition to declining patient volume and services, most of the patients in our service area are covered by Medicare, Medicaid, or PEIA. Reimbursement from these sources is consistently at a rate far less than the actual cost of caring for the patient.”

PCH acquired BRMC in June 2019 with the hopes of maintaining both hospitals and taking advantage of the strengths of each.

“I am deeply saddened by this announcement and I regret that this is the outcome of the acquisition,” PCH Board President Rusty Sarver said. “BRMC has been a pillar of the community for nearly 50 years. It provided quality health care and stable employment for thousands over the decades. Many of the current dedicated employees have been with the hospital for 20, 30, and 40 years. Regrettably, with the volatility of today’s health care environment, our decreasing population, and reductions in federal funding and reimbursements from government and commercial insurers, there are no other viable options.”

“Rural hospitals throughout the United States have struggled in recent years to remain open,” PCH CEO Jeffrey E. Lilley said. “It was our hope to change that outcome for BRMC. In the end, the board had to take steps to mitigate the losses and ensure the viability of health care in our region.”

“We are working closely with PCH leadership as they move forward to develop plans for the future of BRMC,” said Bluefield Mayor Ron Martin. “Rural hospitals struggle under the weight of reimbursement for services that simply do not cover the cost of care. Even before COVID-19, hospitals like BRMC operated on extremely thin margins, and struggled to stay afloat. Elective medical procedures were a key source of revenue, but those were halted under COVID-19 at both PCH and BRMC, putting the hospitals in an extremely difficult financial position. While we are saddened by this decision and by the loss of BRMC as a full-service hospital, we are committed to working with PCH leadership and our state and federal elected officials to find a productive use for that facility to serve the health care needs of our region.”

The board of directors and administration desire to keep the emergency department with lab and x-ray support operational at BRMC and are working with appropriate agencies in this effort, the PCH statement said.

PCH will continue to provide inpatient and emergency services to Mercer County and the surrounding areas. BRMC leadership will ensure Regional Command and all EMS personnel throughout the county are notified of any changes in the status of the BRMC emergency department.

As a trauma center, PCH’s Emergency Department has the personnel and capacity to accommodate the additional workload that could be a result of these changes, the statement said.

Current and past BRMC patients may continue to access their medical records and online bill pay through BRMC’s website. The BRMC Patient Portal and online bill pay will remain functional for the next six months. After six months, they will remain functional on PCH’s website.

After the acquisition last year, Lilley said the plan was to “further develop and strengthen delivery of health care in our communities … People and their commitment to make each facility the best it can be are what drive both organizations to be successful.”

But in April, about 68 BRMC employees lost their jobs when the OB/GYN and surgical services departments ceased operations “due to the unprecedented negative impact resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“The volatile landscape in healthcare has never been more negatively impacted than the destruction seen from COVID-19. Efforts to mitigate long-term impacts on the overall healthcare provided in our region require immediate steps to ensure the integrity of our system,” Lilley said at that time.

Bluefield City Attorney Colin Cline said after the April announcement he understood that BRMC’s emergency room was staying open.

The city issued a statement after the April 30 closings were announced.

“The City of Bluefield was informed (April 10) that Princeton Community Hospital will begin moving major services from Bluefield Regional Medical Center to Princeton for cost saving measures. While this is sad news, it was not unexpected, especially in light of the challenges facing the healthcare industry, including the cessation of all elective surgeries for the foreseeable future as part of the mandatory response to COVID-19,” according to the city’s statement. “It is important, especially now, that we focus on healthcare from a regional perspective, and we are fortunate that Princeton Community Hospital remains open and strong, and able to care for those who may fall ill.

“From an economic perspective, the city had already made significant adjustments to its budget following the acquisition of BRMC by PCH. This acquisition changed the status of BRMC from for-profit to non-profit, which had a direct and significant impact on the city’s business and occupation tax receipts,” according to the April 10 statement. “The city had already accounted for this shift and made the appropriate budget adjustments, so the shift of major services to Princeton will not have an immediate, direct fiscal impact on the city.”

Bluefield was pushing last month to at least keep emergency services at BRMC.

“While the facility’s future is uncertain, the city has communicated to PCH leadership that maintaining emergency room capabilities are a critical element for our citizens and we are deeply concerned if that is not preserved,” the city’s statement said. “The city has offered and stands ready to partner with Princeton Community Hospital and authorities at the state and national levels to find another use for the structure. When COVID-19 is behind us, we will start seeing the effects and benefits of the federal economic stimulus adopted in response to the pandemic, and we will try to leverage those resources to forge a path forward for the facility.”

The purchase of the hospital by PCH also came after the former owner of BRMC, Community Health Systems Inc., based in Nashville, Tenn., which had purchased the hospital in 2010, spent about $40 million on improvements.

Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com

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