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Ashland Hospital's remarkable turnaround

Two years ago, Ashland Community Hospital's future looked bleak. The small facility was hemorrhaging money, and community opposition to a potential merger with an out-of-state hospital chain company prompted that company to pull out of the deal. Ashland was facing the possibility of losing its community hospital for good.

That all seems like a bad dream now. ACH has cut its operating losses to $1.5 million for the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, down from $3.6 million in 2013 and $4.2 million in 2012, and is on track to be back in the black for the fiscal year that began Oct. 1.

Much of the credit for that turnaround goes to Asante Health System, which brought ACH under its regional umbrella in 2013.

Community objections to Dignity Health centered around its affiliation with the Catholic Church and the effect that might have on services such as abortion and physician-assisted suicide. In addition, some community members demanded that the city of Ashland require Dignity to agree to protect jobs for five years — an unrealistic condition given the need to cut costs.

Asante had been among the finalists before Dignity was chosen, but some board members feared the Medford-based hospital system was too small to fend off a takeover by a larger hospital chain. The ACH board went back to Asante when Dignity pulled out, and the hospital's future now appears much brighter.

Some of that is the result of changing how the hospital delivers care — by having certified nursing assistants perform routine, low-level tasks so that registered nurses could be freed up for higher-level functions such as managing medications. The support staff has been reduced, but more nurses have been hired.

Other changes were more obvious, such as using Asante's bulk buying power to save on supplies and replacing the computer system so that insurance codes were billed correctly and the hospital actually got paid for services rendered. As expected, some administrative functions were absorbed into the Asante system, such as human resources, marketing, information technology support and risk management.

The result is a community hospital that is building on its strengths, including surgery, promoting unique services it offers such as water births, and exploring the use of midwives for patients who prefer that option.

A pay freeze was lifted, and employees who qualified received raises the past two years.

Some jobs did disappear, which was unavoidable given the hospital's financial woes. But without a turnaround to put ACH on a sustainable path, all the jobs would have gone away. Congratulations to Asante and to Sheila Clough, ACH's new CEO, who came on board in 2013, for the quick recovery.