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History Complicating Efforts To Preserve Health Care In Kansas County

Bryan Thompson
Heartland Health Monitor

People who live in small towns across Kansas are struggling to save institutions that in their minds define their communities.

Schools are often at the heart of these efforts, but recent changes in the health care system are making it increasingly difficult for rural hospitals to make ends meet. That’s true of both hospitals in Harper County, located along the Oklahoma border southwest of Wichita. And as Heartland Health Monitor's Bryan Thompson reports, a longstanding rivalry is complicating efforts to find a solution.

The rivalry between Anthony and Harper dates back a long way. Harper Hospital’s chief financial officer, Sandra Owen, has lived in the county for 20 years, which means she’s still a newcomer--but she knows the story.

“I can recall when I first moved to Harper County, and being told really what it boiled down to was back in the 1800’s, Anthony stole the courthouse from Harper," Owen says.

There was an election in 1879 to decide whether Anthony or Harper—then the county’s largest town—would be the county seat. Almost 3,000 votes were cast—but there were only 800 registered voters in the county. Anthony won the courthouse, but the rivalry lingers. And it's complicating efforts to solve a big problem facing both towns – the potential loss of their hospitals. Located just 10 miles apart, the Anthony and Harper hospitals are both losing money.

Martha Hadsall, who chairs the Anthony Medical Center board, says they can’t continue to rely on local tax revenues to fill the gap. Hadsall told a recent joint meeting of the two hospital boards that the trend for federal and state support is clear.

“Ten percent, two percent, 13 percent, 25 percent, 4 percent, 35 percent—cut, cut, cut, cut," Hadsall said.

So the two boards are looking for a possible common solution. That could mean a partnership between the two facilities, or perhaps even one new hospital to serve the entire county. But Hadsall says a consensus on what to do is still miles away.

“We know we have got to build community buy-in," she says. "We have to develop a clear, combined vision--and we don’t have that yet.”

An analysis by a private consulting group says the best option is to build a new, combined hospital, at a cost of about $15 million. That won’t be an easy sell.

“Leave Harper alone!" says resident Bonnie June Day. "Our hospital is doing fine without being consolidated with them. We’ve got good doctors here. We pay taxes on our hospital here. We just got done redoing our hospital, and it’s great the way it is.”

Day says she thinks taxpayers in Harper are willing to pay more, if that’s what it takes to keep their hospital open.

Meanwhile, at Irwin-Potter Pharmacy in Anthony, eight women who call themselves “the ladies of the round table” are sitting next to the soda fountain. They hope the two hospitals can work together to avoid duplication of services. But they want both hospitals to remain open--and they want federal policymakers to help small towns keep their hospitals.

The ladies want an emergency room in town, not five or ten miles away. Keeping both hospitals open, but consolidating administration, is among the options, but Harper Hospital CEO Bill Widener says a merger may be the most realistic option.

“Nobody wants to lose their hospital—the convenience of the clinics right in town, the ERs—we all understand that," Widener says. "But the key phrase there is we don’t want to lose our hospital. And this merger will give this county the best opportunity to maintain a good hospital and good health care right in the county.”

Those pushing for a joint solution have their work cut out for them. A merger would require the patrons of one of the hospital districts to voluntarily dissolve their district. Given the history these two communities share, that’s asking a lot, no matter what’s at stake.