NRMC staff raise payment concerns

Published 12:07 am Saturday, March 1, 2014

NATCHEZ — As Natchez Regional Medical Center approaches bankruptcy, some employees of the county-owned hospital are expressing concern their insurance and retirement benefits may be in jeopardy.

An employee who did not wish to be named said she has been told her insurance is no good, a story Simmons Huber — a registered nurse who works in NRMC’s operating room — said she has heard from several co-workers.

“I was told by some physicians that claims had not been paid in several months, and I have talked to some employees who had not had claims paid,” Huber said. “If money is coming out of our checks every two weeks for our insurance coverage, then where is that money going? We were told in an employee forum our insurance was OK.”

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Huber said after hearing those stories, she made a call to the hospital’s insurance company, Benefit Management Systems, and spoke with a representative there.

“When I asked (the BMS representative) where was the money going, if in fact insurance claims were not being paid, she made the comment at one point, saying, ‘Would you rather payroll be made or insurance claims be made?’” Huber said.

The BMS representative also told Huber a large payment on claims had been released in January.

The Rev. Leroy White, chairman of NRMC’s board of trustees, said the hospital’s insurance claims are paid in pools, which is why some claims have not gone through right away.

Any contribution toward insurance taken from an employee’s paycheck has gone toward insurance, White said.

Employees have also expressed concern about the hospital’s contributions to the Public Employee Retirement System. White said the hospital is behind on the employer’s contribution portion of PERS — in fact, it’s one of the reasons NRMC has sought bankruptcy — any money deducted from paychecks for PERS has gone to the system.

“When we file bankruptcy, it will be structured so that all of our creditors are paid and other obligations met, and PERS will be included in that,” White said.

Huber said she feels communication with employees has not been the best it could be.

“If what we are speculating or what some people have told us is not true, just tell us and be forthcoming to us,” she said.

The nurse compared the situation to a doctor’s visit in which bad news has to be given.

“Good medicine says that you try to make them comfortable and try to alleviate any anxiety,” she said. “That is part of providing a good service. If we have a misconception of what is happening here, please inform us but inform us truthfully, because we feel like that has not been happening. If we are wrong, tell us we are wrong, but back it up.”

County Supervisors David Carter and Mike Lazarus recently attended a meeting of the hospital’s trustees, saying they went at the prompting of NRMC employees.

“We had been approached by some employees with questions, and we just wanted to know how to answer those questions,” Lazarus said. “I represent not only the taxpayers of Adams County, but the employees, and I needed some answers.”

Lazarus said during the meeting the hospital board, “told us what we needed to hear.”

Carter said the two supervisors asked the board point-blank about PERS and insurance concerns, and they were assured all obligations would be met.

“I wanted to make sure our employees, who were dedicated to protecting our lives, were taken care of,” he said.

“I said there were some insurance claims that need to be called more promptly — some that were several months behind — and they assured us those will be called up.

“I think if we are going into bankruptcy and we need to prioritize, I think our people, followed by our local vendors, should be at the top of the list.”

Huber said she was hesitant to talk about the situation, but NRMC’s employees were beginning to feel like something had to be said publicly.

“I want to support my hospital,” she said.

“I don’t want to make it look bad, because you don’t want the citizens of the community to feel bad about where you work, but at the same time, something has to be done about this situation.”

Because NRMC is county-owned, it cannot file bankruptcy without legislative approval. The bill that will allow the filing cleared the state Senate and was transmitted to the governor for his signature Friday. The bill has to be signed by Thursday.

Even while permission to file bankruptcy approaches, the hospital is settling accounts with creditors.

White said Entergy Mississippi approached the hospital this week and asked if NRMC would get a larger security bond in case of default in payment. Instead, the hospital was able to work out an agreement with the power company in which it paid its outstanding bill and kept the smaller bond, he said.

“I don’t know how much the bill was, but our facility can generate a large power bill,” White said.

NRMC’s audit for fiscal year 2012-2013 was due to be completed in February, but White said the auditor had not yet completed the work.

He said he looked forward to getting the audit in order to get a clearer picture of where the hospital stands financially.

But while Carter said he was interested in the audit, ultimately he said he did not think it would answer all the questions he has about the hospital’s finances.

“The audit only goes through September,” he said. “Four weeks ago, we requested information about the current finances, and we still haven’t gotten it. We need to know stuff in real time. We need to know where we are currently. I am still waiting to see where we are with that request we made a month ago.”

NRMC opened in 1960 as Jefferson Davis Memorial Hospital. Its $2.4 million construction was underwritten by an $800,000 local contribution and state and federal funds.

It has been financially independent since 1974 and does not receive tax support, but is backed by a 5-mill standby tax that the Mississippi Development Bank required the hospital to get in 2006 when it asked for the MDB to reissue its revenue bond.

The hospital filed for bankruptcy in 2009 and exited it later that year. The current bankruptcy action became necessary to keep the hospital’s doors open, hospital administrators said last month, when NRMC’s financial liabilities exceeded its revenues by $3 million.

The county supervisors, who have to approve any action to sell the facility, appoint the hospital’s volunteer trustees. The board of trustees includes White, John Serafin, Dr. Linda Godley, Bill Ernst, Lionel Stepter, Lee Martin and Dr. Jennifer Russ.