Community Health Net rebounds after suffering a poor site evaluation and firing its CEO.
Community Health Net appears to be recovering from more than a few self-inflicted wounds.
The downtown Erie medical center received a devastating evaluation from the federal government in October and fired its CEO in April, the second time the center has parted ways with its administrative leader in five years.
The center’s chief operating officer also resigned in May, and its director of administration died in July.
Still, Community Health Net’s current leadership expressed reassurance about the center’s ability to continue providing affordable health care to low-income residents of Erie County.
“We are still here and we are still providing health care,” said Craig Ulmer, the center’s interim CEO.
“Things are running much better now,” added Barbara Drew, chairwoman of the center’s board of directors. “The staff has adapted to the changes and we are more focused on our patients.”
Created in 1985, Community Health Net offers an array of medical services that include primary care, obstetrics-gynecology and dental care. As a federally qualified health center, it receives higher payments for treating Medicaid patients — who make up a large share of the center’s patient load — and the FQHC status provides immunity for the center and its staff from malpractice claims.
The center must undergo annual operational site evaluations by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Health Resources and Services Administration to maintain its FQHC status. The center’s 19 programs were reviewed on a pass-fail basis in October — and 12 of them failed.
“If we didn’t fix those issues, we could have (lost FQHC status),” Drew said.
One issue was that the center’s memorandum of agreement with Adagio Health did not include a phase that required Adagio to adopt the center’s mandatory sliding fee scale for uninsured patients referred there.
“Without that phrase, they could have charged the patient exorbitant fees,” Drew said.
Center officials also discovered that primary care patients were waiting far loo long in examination rooms to see a physician.
“We had patients who were getting up and leaving,” Drew said.
“So we had our chief operating officer and director of nursing sit with the patients to see where the bottlenecks were occurring,” Ulmer said. “We learned the biggest bottleneck was caused by our staff not telling the physician there was a patient in the exam room.”
Staff members have been told to do a better job of notifying physicians and wait times have decreased significantly, Ulmer said. Some patient shadowing continues at the center to ensure wait times don’t increase again.
Community Health Net has been working to fix all of the problems and keep its FQHC designation. Only one of the 12 programs that failed the evaluation still needs approval from HRSA, Drew said.
Neither Drew nor Ulmer would say whether the poor evaluation caused them to fire R. Anthony Snow, M.D., who served as CEO since 2012 when the center decided not to renew the contract of then-CEO John Schultz. Snow had been the center’s longtime medical director.
“You can be a good medical person but when it came to being a leader and taking care of all the things that need to be taken care of, he just didn’t have it,” Drew said.
A phone message left with Snow seeking comment was not returned.
Community Health Net will soon begin the hiring process for a new CEO. Ulmer, who was the center’s chief information officer, said he will not apply for the job, which will also include some of the duties of the chief operating officer.
The COO position is not expected to be filled in the near future, Drew said.
“Mr. Ulmer has been wearing three hats,” Drew said. “He’s done a heck of a job.”
Financially, the center remains on solid footing despite all the recent change. It has not lost money since 2012-13 and it posted an operating surplus of $330,672 in fiscal 2015-16 despite earning nearly $400,000 less treating patients, according to federal tax returns.
That’s due to the center slashing expenses by more than $527,000 despite maintaining a workforce of 123 people, roughly the same number as in recent years.
“We do a lot more centralized supply buying, which reduces costs,” Drew said. “Each of our four dental locations used to buy their own supplies and now things are more streamlined.”
The center is preparing to release its new strategic plan during its quarterly staff meeting Sept. 7. The new plan is more extensive than the previous one, which Drew said was only four sentences long.
“It’s about making the patients first,” Drew said.
David Bruce can be reached at 870-1736 or by email. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ETNbruce.