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The suspension of surgery services at Riverland Medical Center (RMC) and the future of surgery at the new parish hospital under construction resulted in a pointed discussion during the regular meeting of the Concordia Parish Police Jury Monday night.

The meeting drew a large audience that included hospital board members, management, employees and private citizens who expressed worry over present and future operations of the facility, but hope that all problems will be resolved.

Police Jury President Jimmy Wilkinson said Tuesday that jurors became concerned last week when they learned that Riverland was suspending surgery due to losses in the department.

“We were not aware of them doing away with that,” he said, “and we had some other concerns so we invited the board to the meeting.”

Juror Joe Parker said at the outset of Monday’s meeting that a surgery department was part of the package used to sell the public on the new hospital and that clarification was needed on the issue. He read a description the new facility provided by Riverland that states it would be “a 61,000 square foot hospital consisting of 23 inpatient rooms, 2 ICU, 8 ER rooms and a Surgical Suite.” The new facility will include a 17,000 square-foot medical office building.

Construction costs are being financed by USDA, New Market Tax Credits, State of Louisiana Capital Outlay and local bank financing, according to RMC.

Another juror, Jimmy Jernigan, questioned why the hospital has made little progress in hiring doctors.

According to RMC, the board of directors voted unanimously Aug. 25 to suspend the hospital surgery program in 60 days. In a letter to the medical staff, CEO Sam Ellard and COO Nekeisha L. Smith said the suspension was due to “massive loss” incurred by the department over the previous 18 months.

Ellard said a search for a primary care physician and surgeon were underway.

The news came as construction of Riverland’s $36 million medical complex is underway on the Ferriday-Vidalia Highway with a targeted opening date of August 2020. Once in the new facility, the hospital’s new name will be Trinity Medical.

Riverland Board of Directors Chairman Jim Graves said a surgery department is part of the plans for the new hospital and that the recent suspension of surgery at the present facility was due to mounting losses and considered a temporary measure.

The hospital’s last surgeon was Dr. Phillip Crace. Some in the audience asked why Crace had been fired, but Graves said Crace chose to leave and that he was not terminated.

Among the criticism voiced at the meeting was that Riverland’s leadership lacks vision and that the two doctors who do scopes do not make referrals locally because they have financial interests elsewhere. Criticism also centered on the hospital’s dependence on consulting firms when taxpayers and citizens should have a voice in such matters as changing the name of the hospital.

Former Ferriday Mayor Glen McGlothin said he hoped the problems are worked out and don’t get bigger before they are solved. He said the hospital was important to the community.

“They’re the reason I’m alive today,” he said of Riverland. “They saved my life.”

Wilkinson said Tuesday that jurors wanted to know why revenue was down in the surgery department, why the hospital was not getting more referrals and why another surgeon has yet to be hired.

“A lot of doctors locally are referring their scopes and surgeries to Winnsboro and not our hospital,” he said.

Wilkinson said the present situation at Riverland was not due to the employees but due to management.

“The CEO (Sam Ellard) makes $200,000 a year and I would expect him to get the surgeries needed to break even,” Wilkinson said. “Their CEO is the highest paid person in Concordia at $200,000 a year and he should be able to recruit a doctor.”

“We met with surgical staff last Friday,” Wilkinson said, to get their view on present conditions.

He also said that the employees were not to blame.

Audience members commented on a lack of communication between hospital management and employees, and complained that employee ideas and comments are not sought or considered.

Wilkinson said Tuesday that after being told the board of directors is trying to recruit a surgeon he asked Graves to provide the Jury with documentation of the recruiting efforts, including the names of five doctors or surgeons contacted, their phone numbers and the dates their services were sought.

“Their financial audit shows in 2018 after all expenses a net profit of $750,000 off the surgical center,” Wilkinson said.

“We are very concerned about the lack of referrals,” he said. “The hospital can’t do business without referrals. This is a problem.”

But Wilkinson said he thought Monday’s meeting was positive.

“It’s a good start,” he said. “The communication was excellent and that’s the whole problem with the board and management. They need to communicate better. This hospital belongs to the people.”

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