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Asante has high hopes for future of Ashland hospital

Asante Ashland Community Hospital has developed a plan it hopes will increase revenue and control costs, boost use of its surgical facilities, improve conditions for employees and align its structure with its new parent organization, Asante Health System.

After struggling financially on its own and losing millions of dollars, Ashland Community Hospital merged with Asante in August.

Since then, leaders have been reaching out to hundreds of people for input in crafting the plan for the hospital's future, ACH Chief Executive Officer Sheila Clough said.

Clough was hired in 2013 to take the helm at the hospital, which had been in danger of closing.

The hospital is taking steps to make sure it gets paid more often for the services it provides, she said.

That includes securing preauthorization for medical procedures, getting patients to pay their co-pays and deductibles early on and making sure that medical coding is done correctly so the hospital gets reimbursed.

Last year, the hospital provided millions of dollars' worth of free or reduced care for patients, Clough said.

That will continue, but the hospital will do more to connect patients with insurance plans, she said.

The hospital continues to have a community care policy for people who are struggling financially or who lack insurance, said Dr. Doug Diehl, a member of the ACH Advisory Board/Quality Committee.

"A person could potentially have a bill forgiven based on need. Our policy is very sensitive to the local community," he said.

On its own, the hospital lost millions of dollars providing care to Medicare patients because of low federal reimbursement rates. Reimbursement rates will ratchet down even more under the federal Affordable Care Act, Diehl said.

Through its merger with Asante, the Ashland hospital has new ways to control costs, Clough said.

The hospital can get volume discounts on medical supplies, for example, and the hospital and Asante have merged many functions, including marketing, information technology, billing and other administrative tasks, Clough said.

In those areas, many Ashland hospital employees were offered jobs in other parts of the Asante network, she said.

Asante's system includes Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center in Medford and Asante Three Rivers Medical Center in Grants Pass.

Some employees took severance packages, Diehl said.

"The loss of employees was minimal," he said. "The board was pleased with how well it went."

Clough said it's difficult to count the net loss of employees at the Ashland hospital since many moved into new positions with Asante.

Diehl said the merger with Asante has allowed the hospital to improve wages and benefits.

Other benefits for employees include continuing education, tuition reimbursement, recognition programs and massage therapy, Clough said.

To improve revenues, the Ashland hospital is working to increase use of its surgical facilities.

"We have significant surgical capacity that is not being used," Diehl said. "The idea is to boost our volumes in our operating rooms nearer capacity."

The hospital wants to capitalize on many of its strengths, including its award-winning Center for Wound Healing and Hyperbaric Medicine.

Patients with wounds that aren't healing well, such as diabetics, are put in oxygen-rich chambers that spur healing.

The center offers the only hyperbaric oxygen therapy between Eugene and Redding, according to hospital personnel. The hospital is also regionally known for its retinal surgery and its birth center.

Diehl said ACH is the only Oregon hospital outside Portland that has created a program to allow vaginal birth after a mother has undergone a Caesarean section in a previous pregnancy.

"Ashland is known for having niche services. Those are valuable to the Asante system as a whole," Diehl said.

Given the Ashland hospital's history of financial struggles, Asante doesn't expect an immediate turn-around.

The budget for the current fiscal year calls for the hospital to experience a smaller loss than in previous years, Clough said.

The goal for the years after is for the hospital's finances to move into the black, she said.

Asante is a nonprofit organization, so any profits will be reinvested in the system, Clough said.

Emphasizing its commitment to the hospital's long-term future, Asante has invested $6 million in a state-of-the-art medical information system, she said.

Health care providers will be able to share patient medical records to provide the best care, Diehl said.

"Information is the currency of health care. This raises the level of wellness for the entire community," he said.

ACH is doing more to communicate with patients' primary care physicians, both when patients enter the hospital and when they leave, Clough said.

Patients have discharge plans that outline follow-up care and treatment. That could help break up the cycle of re-hospitalization for people with chronic conditions, Diehl said.

Clough said Asante recognizes that Ashland and Talent patients are more likely to seek out holistic health care practitioners who address the mind, body and spirit. She said Asante wants to be respectful of the treatment they have been receiving and ensure coordinated care between the hospital and other providers.

Reach Ashland Daily Tidings reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-479-8199 or vlaldous@yahoo.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous.

Asante Ashland Community Hospital offers the only hyperbaric oxygen therapy between Eugene and Redding, according to hospital personnel. - Jamie Lusch