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History Complicates Efforts To Preserve Health Care In Kansas County

Bryan Thompson
Heartland Health Monitor
Changes in the health care system are making it increasingly difficult for rural hospitals like Harper Hospital to make ends meet.

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 also focusing attention on rural hospitals, which are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. That’s true of both hospitals in Harper County, located along the Oklahoma border southwest of Wichita, where a long-standing rivalry is complicating efforts to find a solution.

The rivalry between Anthony and Harper dates back more than a century. 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 1800s, Anthony stole the courthouse from Harper,” Owen said.

Credit Bryan Thompson / Heartland Health Monitor
Heartland Health Monitor
Sandra Owen is Harper Hospital's chief financial officer.

That bit of history dates back to an election in 1879 to decide whether Anthony or Harper — then the county’s largest town — would be the county seat. Although there were only 800 registered voters in the county, 2,960 votes were cast. William G. Cutler's History of the State of Kansas, first published in 1883 by A.T. Andreas, described the balloting as “slightly suspicious.”

Anthony won the courthouse, but the rivalry still 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, told a recent joint meeting of the two hospital boards that they can’t continue to rely on local tax revenues to fill the gap. She said the trend for federal and state support is unmistakable.

“Ten percent, 2 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 one new hospital to serve the entire county. But Hadsall said a consensus on what to do is still miles away.

“We know we have got to build community buy-in,” she said. “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.

Bonnie June Day agreed to share her opinion while sitting under a hair dryer at Connie’s Beauty Shop in Harper.

“Leave Harper alone! Our hospital is doing fine without being consolidated with them,” she said. “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.”

That opinion, or some version of it, is shared by a number of people — especially older residents — in Harper. Day said she thinks taxpayers in Harper are willing to pay more, if that’s what it takes to keep their hospital open.

Credit Bryan Thompson / Heartland Health Monitor
Heartland Health Monitor
Harper Hospital CEO Bill Widener says a merger with Anthony Medical Center may be the most realistic option.

Meanwhile, at Irwin-Potter Pharmacy in Anthony, eight women who call themselves “the ladies of the round table” sat next to the soda fountain, engaged in a lively discussion. They hope the two hospitals can work together to avoid duplication of services. But they want both hospitals to remain open.

One woman who didn’t want to give her name called on federal policymakers to help small towns keep their hospitals.

“Even though all these little hospitals are spread all over here and there, the federal government needs to realize that we’re in a rural area. We’re not in Kansas City, or someplace like that. … Let one of them come out here and have a heart attack, and see how well he likes it.”

These ladies agree they want an emergency room in their town, not five or 10 miles away. Keeping both hospitals open but consolidating their administration is among the options. However, Harper Hospital CEO Bill Widener said 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,” he said. “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 how much is at stake.

Bryan Thompson is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.

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