Unity Health has not applied for any federal provider relief money, but has received some funding from the Department of Health and Human Services as part of the relief stimulus package to help hospitals in handling COVID-19-related expenses and revenue losses, according to Steven Webb, president and chief executive officer.

“All the acute care hospitals that accept Medicare/Medicaid got some of the HHS funds is what we call them,” Webb said. “That helped offset any COVID expenses that we have and it tried to offset any revenue [losses] that we had because when the state shut down our ability to do elective surgeries, they did that across the state and it had an negative financial impact on health care systems.”

Webb said White County Medical Center got some HHS money in April and also got some in May.

“The governor did work with the hospital association and set aside some money for cover expenses for all hospitals in Arkansas and that money we think we may be able to get in September that was from the governor’s $1.2 billion he got for the state,” he said.

As far as how much HHS money Unity Health received, Webb said it is still being calculated and Unity Health had to attest that it was going to use all of that money for cover expenses for lost revenue.

“They are still coming out with the guidelines on how that will shake out and we have until the end of the year to figure it out,” Webb said.

Unity Health also has applied for some grants to help with costs, Webb said.

“The timing of this was really strange,” he said. “In the first part of March, we hired a grant writer, then COVID hit. She had been really diligent in trying to apply for grants for relief, but not any of the federally qualified payment funds.”

In a recent column in The Daily Citizen, Congressman John Boozman, R-Ark., wrote about the struggle of some rural hospitals in the state and the need for provider relief funds. Webb said a lot of those hospitals were struggling before COVID-19.

“There were 18 hospitals that were on the verge of closing before COVID-19 hit and then there’s another 26 that only stay open because they get support through tax from either their city or their county, so health care in rural Arkansas has been a challenge, especially in small communities,” Webb said.

He said he thinks what sets Unity Health apart from those hospitals is that it has a very good leadership team and a very conservative board that “has been very good stewards of the resources we had.”

“They have been very thoughtful and mindful about the expenses we have and the amount of debt that we have,” Webb said. “We have very low debt level and when you don’t have debt and debt services you have to cover, it allows you to be a lot more agile when it comes to responding to things like this.

“I was picking up the paper every day and seeing hospitals across Arkansas since March have done layoffs and furloughs and really had to do a lot of drastic things to be able to continue to operate. We didn’t lay off one single individual at Unity Health. We haven’t in our 53-year history; we’ve never done a layoff and we want to continue to do that, taking care of our associates first.

“We are in such a good position because they care about this organization. Just as an example, we are seeing everybody else lay off their workforce up to 10, 15 percent all around us. We’re continuing to keep our folks here and not laying them off. In fact, we went out of our way to take care and figure out ways for them to benefit in these economic times.”

He said the hospital also has been “really fortunate” in its supply of personal protective equipment.

“We started looking for PPE and trying to be prepared in January before most people in Arkansas ever heard of COVID. So our team has been very aggressive in trying to get our PPE,” Webb said. “They were clawing and scratching and grabbing and trying to get everything we needed to take care of patients.

“Some of our vendors have been able to get us the supplies we need and some of them haven’t. Some of our masks have to be fitted to the individual size and we have fitted people and those masks haven’t been able to come in but fortunately we had another brand or vendor that did and we’ve been able to make that transition the first time so we’ve never run out. Our team here has done a really good job of being conscious of the limitations on supplies across the country and have been good stewards of what we have.”

Webb also praised the community for the great support, mentioning that there were times when the hospital got low on PPE and “someone from the community would come up and say, ‘Hey, we just have these N95’s (masks) laying around and we want to give those to you.’ That happened multiple times from a lot of different people at the right place provided us with needed PPE.”

Regarding lessons learned from COVID-19, Webb said every day it is changing and it’s a lot of evolution with people now calling Unity Health for advice. Some Mayo Clinic affiliates are even calling Unity Health for advice about testing for COVID-19, he said.

“It has been a learning process and I have been on the phone with Arkansas hospital CEOs, with national hospital CEOs, there is a lot of sharing going on,” he said, “and the thing I take back from this is that I’m just go grateful for my team and the work that they’ve done.

“We can do testing like nobody else in central Arkansas can do testing. We can do about 200 tests a day in house; 24-hour turnaround time. We have had other health systems reach out to us. There’s two other health systems in north central Arkansas that we’re doing their testing for because they can’t do it in-house and we can do it in-house so we’ve just been very fortunate. We are still growing every day.”

Addressing how hospital visitor policy has changed since the start of COVID-19, Webb said, “We were very conservative with our visitor policy. It is really hard to tell a loved one they can’t come up to a room with their loved that’s in the hospital but that was just something we had to do at the beginning to protect our staff and to protect the patients we’ve had at the hospital. As we’ve understood more and talked to other hospitals, we’ve loosened out visitor policy, so we’re allowing visitors every day but with restricted hours.”

He said visitors are allowed from 3-6 p.m.

“We’re just trying to find that balance and I think a lot of lessons we’re learning is how do we provide that level of care and that level of comfort and that level of support for our patients and still try to protect our patients from this virus,” Webb said. “I just can’t talk enough about how good our team did.

“There is a lot of stress around this so our behavioral health team came and said, ‘Hey, we’ll do a free emotional support line.’ We’ve got licensed counselors who will talk to people, just give them our phone number and they can call and talk to us and we’ll help them through the anxiety of this. It has been more that the physical health that Unity Health has been able to respond to. It has been the emotional health.”

Another lesson Webb learned, he said, is that people need to seek their health care services even in a pandemic.

“There’s no textbooks on how to deal with a pandemic. We just saw people who suffered at home when they could have been taken care of at the hospital,” he said. “That is what we’ve been trying to encourage people to do is to come back to the hospital. Don’t let your congestive heart failure or pneumonia or any of the chronic things that you deal with get to where they’re not manageable. If we can help you. We are here to help you. We are a safe place to be.

“You go to Lowe’s, you have to wear a mask but nobody is screening you at the door for temperature or making you wash your hands or asking you questions, but when you come to the hospital, you can’t get through the door unless you’ve been screened and make sure you have no temperature and you got a mask on and you haven’t been exposed, so that’s a lesson that we learned that people need to feel comfortable to come to the hospital to get the health care service.”

Webb said he gives updates a couple times during the week on the Unity Health Facebook page and try to be transparent with the community about how the hospital is handling COVID-19.

“I think Unity Health is as good or better than any other health care system in our response to COVID,” he said. “I’m really proud of our team and I’m really proud of the way this community has supported us and helped us not only in Searcy and White County but also at our hospital in Newport and Jackson County. We’ve gotten tremendous support all the way around. I consider us to be very fortunate and very blessed.”

As of Wednesday, Webb reported that Unity Health das had a total of 296 positive COVID-19 test and 9,082 tests have been conducted. Seven in-house positive cases were reported by Webb and two presumptive in-house cases. So far, White County has had two deaths from COVID-19.

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