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Firm says it will stop operating Topeka hospital this summer
Apr 18

Editors Note Takes new approach, focusing on role of hospital's problems in debate over expanding Medicaid. Updates with comments from expansion advocate, local hospital board member, Topeka mayor. With AP Photos.

Associated Press

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) _ The owner of a nonprofit Catholic hospital in Topeka said Tuesday that it will stop operating the facility this summer, whether or not it finds a buyer, and that Kansas' refusal to expand state health coverage for the needy contributed to the hospital's financial troubles.

The 378-bed St. Francis hospital's problems have advocates promising to push again to expand the state's Medicaid program under former President Barack Obama's signature health care law. But it's not clear that they can pick up enough votes in the Republican-controlled Legislature to overcome opposition from GOP Gov. Sam Brownback, who vetoed an expansion bill last month.

Brownback and a local hospital board member said expanding Medicaid, which provides coverage for the poor, disabled and elderly, would not save St. Francis from closing. But its owner, Denver-based SCL Health, said in a statement Tuesday that the failure to do so ``added pressure'' as uncompensated and charity care more than doubled over the past five years.

``There's no question that St. Francis would be a stronger hospital had Medicaid expansion happened,'' said David Jordan, executive director of the Alliance for a Healthy Kansas.

SCL has been looking for a buyer for St. Francis since May 2016 but has yet to find one and said Tuesday that it is willing to donate the hospital to another organization to keep it open. The company said it hopes to have more definitive information about the hospital's future by the first week of May, though President and CEO Mike Slubowski said St. Francis ``is not sustainable.''

``With or without another operator, however, SCL Health will cease operating the hospital this summer,'' the company's statement said.

Mercy Hospital in Independence closed in 2015, with local officials citing the state's failure to expand Medicaid as a key factor. Hospitals in Fort Scott and Wellington also are facing problems, and Jordan's alliance says 31 are vulnerable.

The bill vetoed by Brownback would have extended Medicaid coverage to up to 180,000 poor adults, most of whom don't have insurance. Supporters were a few votes short in each chamber of the two-thirds majorities necessary to override a veto and working to attract them.

The 2010 federal law championed by Obama promised to pick up most of the tab, but Brownback said the remaining costs would have busted the cash-strapped state's budget while moving Medicaid away from protecting the truly vulnerable.

Dr. Jim Owen, a local St. Francis board member and the chairman of the hospital's radiology department, said SCL Health's management of the hospital is largely responsible for its problems, arguing that it has not invested in the facility or done and adequate job of recruiting staff.

``Had we had Medicaid expansion, we'd still be where we are now,'' he said.

Federal income tax forms available online said that from 2012 through 2015, St. Francis Health lost nearly $26 million, though SCL's statement said the losses for the past five years, including 2016, amounted to $117 million.

The company's statement came only hours after Brownback issued one saying he had a commitment from Slubowski to delay any announcement about closing the hospital. Brownback also said he expected further negotiations in coming weeks.

Later, Brownback spokeswoman Melika Willoughby said in an email: ``An all-out effort is underway to keep St. Francis open.''

Local officials said St. Francis and its affiliated clinics provide about a third of the health care in the Topeka area, and closing the hospital could endanger up to 1,600 jobs.

Attorney General Derek Schmidt said last week that he would review St. Francis' finances at the request of Brownback and Topeka Mayor Larry Wolgast.

The state has intervened in the past when facing the closing of a nonprofit hospital or when a nonprofit hospital is being sold to a for-profit company. A long-standing legal doctrine in Kansas holds that charitable assets belong to the people and the state must be compensated for their loss.

``I remain confident we will pull together as a community and work through this transition,'' Wolgast said.


Associated Press writer Allison Kite contributed to this report.


Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .

By The Associated Press, Copyright 2017