Forest Park Hospital in St. Louis was first built in 1929. And after 79 years, community leaders and local healthcare industry heavyweights are questioning if the hospital is on its last leg. It was losing millions annually when Tenet sold the hospital to its current owner, Envision Hospitals of America, formerly known as Doctors Community Healthcare Corporation. The company says it buys distressed hospitals which are at risk of closing and tries to turn them around. And Envision says that was the goal when it bought Forest Park Hospital and St. Alexius Hospital in 2005. But the current state of the two hospitals, under Envision's ownership and the company's track record, has many concerned about the future of the hospitals and safety of patients.
Envision admits that the two hospitals have gotten behind on their bills. But companies which sell supplies or provide services to the hospitals will tell you that's an understatement. The hospitals' electric bills went unpaid for so long that the total past due amount owed to Ameren UE topped $800,000. It got so bad that Ameren notified Forest Park Hospital and the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services that unless the bill was paid, it would turn off the electricity. A drastic measure to get the company to pay its bill. The hospitals are now making payments. The past due amount on Forest Park's water bill topped $57,000. In March, the hospital agreed to a payment plan, but after missing the first payment, wouldn't take call nor return calls to representatives from MSD. The hospitals are currently adhering to a subsequently arranged payment plan. Because the hospitals weren't making payments or were far behind on payments, some companies refuse to do business with them and others will only deliver medical supplies needed for scheduled operations and daily medical care, if those supplies are shipped, cash on delivery. Hospital officials say they've adopted a "just-in-time" policy for ordering supplies to keep costs down. Envision admits that its total debt for both hospitals, owed to vendors is $24 million. Lawsuits from companies that have gone unpaid have piled up and those companies that have agreed to a settlement usually got 50-60% of the full amount owed. The situation begs the question, Is this anyway to run a company? Well, those who have dealt with Envision, in another city, say that all of this is by design. In fact, they describe it as the company's business model.
Envision's rocky tenure as owner of Greater Southeast Community Hospital in Washington D.C. was well documented. The company was forced by the D.C. city council to sell the hospital to a hand-picked new owner. Envision was criticized for draining Greater Southeast Community Hospital of its resources and leaving it to degenerate slowly to the brink of shutdown. The company's owners were accused of taking home multi-million dollar salaries while employees and vendors were not paid and equipment was badly in need of repair or replacement. Envision says the criticisms are off the mark and were politically motivated. But some look at the current operations of Forest Park and St. Alexius and see a pattern.
The fear is that Envision's way of running a hospital is causing conditions to degenerate at Forest Park Hospital and St. Alexius Hospital, reducing the quality of care and putting patients at risk. In a statement released by the company regarding Forest Park Hospital, it says that the hospital continues to meet all Joint Commission and Department of Health standards. But here are two clues that there are troubling changes happening at Forest Park Hospital. After 20 years, cardiologist Dr. Wendall Williams recently left, saying he no longer thought it would be safe to have his patients treated there. And malpractice attorney Keith Short says he's seen a sharp increase in the last couple of years, from people approaching his firm wanting to file a malpractice lawsuit against Forest Park Hospital. He says referrals from other law firms for these kinds of cases, which involve Forest Park Hospital, far outnumber referrals involving other hospitals.
Envision executives say they're working to secure new financing that will turn things around at Forest Park Hospital and St. Alexius Hospital. But that financing comes with stipulations that make sure the money doesn't end up somewhere else in the company besides the St. Louis hospital. Envision says it rescued the two hospitals from almost certain closure and that better days are ahead. Hospital employees, patients and the community are hoping that's true. But the company's actions to date, leave many with serious doubts.