This story was updated to include comments from Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly.
Yet another ailing rural hospital once operated by EmpowerHMS, which used to be based in North Kansas City, has closed.
The Horton (Kansas) Community Hospital about 78 miles northwest of Kansas City shut its doors at 5 p.m. Tuesday, according to City Administrator John Calhoon.
“I can tell you the Kansas Department of Health and Environment has been here a couple of days this week and the attorney general’s office arrived yesterday afternoon and were there into the early evening,” Calhoon said.
“However, I believe that the hospital basically voluntarily shut down due to lack of personnel from no wages being paid to them since Feb. 15th.”
CJ Grover, a spokesman for Kansas Attorney General Derek Schmidt, said in a statement that the attorney general’s office “has an ongoing investigation into Horton Community Hospital.”
“We have no further comment at this time,” he said.
Gerald Kratochvil, a spokesman for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said officials of the agency were at the hospital to conduct a survey of the hospital after receiving a complaint.
“Under CMS (the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) rules, we’re not allowed to reveal what the complaints were or who made the complaints,” Kratochvil said. “We’ll likely have a report coming out regarding the results of the survey. However, it might not matter since the hospital is closed, so CMS will determine if they need a report from us.”
The hospital’s interim CEO, Ty Compton, could not be reached for comment.
The 25-bed hospital’s closure came just weeks after two other hospitals once operated by EmpowerHMS turned off the lights.
Oswego Community Hospital in Oswego, Kansas, about 160 miles south of Kansas City, shut down a month ago. The 12-bed facility said it was no longer able to cover its operating expenses.
And 15-bed I-70 Community Hospital in Sweet Springs, Missouri, about 65 miles east of Kansas City, also said about a month ago that it was temporarily closing after state regulators said it was “out of regulatory compliance.”
It’s not clear if I-70 Community Hospital will be able to reopen; federal regulators have cut off its participation in the Medicare program, typically a death knell for a small community hospital.
Until recently, all three hospitals — Horton, Oswego and I-70 — had been owned and operated by EmpowerHMS, a company that bought up ailing rural hospitals with the aim of turning them around. Empower until recently was based in North Kansas City, but its office appears to have been vacated.
Earlier this year, Empower transferred management of 13 of its hospitals in Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Florida and North Carolina to Florida-based iHealthcare. Attempts to reach iHealthcare officials at the phone number listed on the company’s website were unsuccessful.
All 13 hospitals, including Hillsboro Community Hospital in Hillsboro, Kansas, and Fulton Medical Center in Fulton Missouri, have struggled recently to make payroll, pay creditors and keep hospital supplies on hand.
Kansas Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly released a statement on Wednesday noting that Horton Community Hospital is the third rural hospital in Kansas to close in the last three months. Mercy Hospital in Fort Scott closed on Dec. 31.
“This is becoming a far too frequent occurrence in our state. Local hospitals are key to the health of Kansas families and are often one of the largest employers in a small town,” Kelly said. “Elected leaders must work together to do more to support our local hospitals.”
The closest hospital to Horton, which has a population of about 1,700, is Hiawatha Community Hospital in Hiawatha, Kansas, about 12 miles north.
In addition to the immediate Horton community, the hospital served the Kansas Kickapoo Tribe just west of Horton as well as several small nearby communities like Willis and Everest.
Calhoon said Horton Community Hospital had between 40 and 50 employees and had served the community for about five decades.
Until the end, he said, employees “really put their heart and soul in trying to hold out as long as they could in hopes they would get their wages paid to them.”
“The promises and statements that were made by corporate never came through and unfortunately, we’re without a hospital,” Calhoon said.
Anticipating the hospital might close, the town made arrangements with Town and Country Ambulance, about 12 miles northwest, to ensure that ambulance service would not be interrupted.
“We had no lapse in ambulance service,” Calhoon said. “But we do want to get every other type of medical provider and services that we can back to our community as soon as possible.”
Rep. John Eplee, an Atchison Republican, met recently with hospital administrators in three communities near his district — including Horton — to determine what it would take to keep their doors open. He said administrators at all three — Horton, Winchester and Hiawatha — said that passing Gov. Kelly’s Medicaid expansion proposal would provide needed infusions of cash.
“The recurrent theme that I heard was that KanCare expansion would make a big difference in stabilizing them and allowing them to catch their breath,” Eplee said.
KanCare was the name given to the state’s Medicaid program when former Republican Gov. Sam Brownback privatized it in 2013.
Eplee, a physician, is one of several Republicans eager to vote with Democrats to pass legislation to extend KanCare coverage to an estimated 130,000 additional low-income Kansans. But at the halfway point of the 2019 session, Republican leaders in the House and Senate appear determined to block a vote on the governor’s expansion bill.
“I’m not in a position to know whether leadership will allow this to come to a vote or not,” Eplee said. “I’m obviously in the camp that I hope we get that opportunity but we’ll have to wait and see.”
Opponents of expansion say the state can’t afford to increase the cost of what is already the state’s second most expensive program at a time when more money is needed for public schools, universities, highways and the state’s troubled foster care program.
GOP members of the House Appropriations Committee voted Wednesday to remove funding for the governor's expansion bill from the budget.
Eplee and other supporters of expansion insist expansion is affordable given that the federal government is obligated to cover 90 percent of the state's costs. In addition, they say, expansion would generate millions of dollars in offsetting savings.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.
Jim McLean is the senior correspondent for the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks.