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Clarissa Taton, a registered nurse at Sumner Community Hospital, said staff at the Wellington medical facility gave everything they had to every patient.
It wasn’t enough.
Management for the hospital abruptly closed the doors Thursday, citing years of financial struggle exacerbated by a lack of support from local physicians.
"People have unrealistic expectations," Taton said. "People have to wait for an hour because their back hurts or they have a scratch, then complain on social media even though we were doing CPR on someone's grandma in the next room or intubating someone with a drug overdose."
Cindy West, the hospital’s CEO, said the closing was completed "in an orderly fashion" to ensure patients were transferred to appropriate care facilities. Employees received pay and benefits for all hours worked, she said.
"We have tried so hard to save our local hospital and know that this is heartbreaking for our community," West said. "As time has passed, it became obvious that the ability to overcome the challenges we faced was impossible."
The hospital was one of the town’s largest employers with about 75 on staff.
"I'm very disappointed," said Wellington Mayor Jim Valentine. "It just dumbfounds me, but we're going to recover from this. We just have to move on and look up."
Wellington city manager Shane Shields said the biggest immediate impact to the community is the burden on emergency management services. The town of 8,000 is about 35 miles south of Wichita, and the extended drive for ambulances could be costly.
"Our EMS department is prepared and making sure of the availability of staff to handle the increased transports," Shields said. "We have well-trained and dedicated EMTs that will continue the care of all patients as they are transported elsewhere.
The 120,000-square-foot building, which was built in the 1950s, is still owned by the city. Valentine said there was a chance the city could try to reopen the emergency room "down the road."
The hospital posted a notice on its door late Thursday serving notice that the facility and its emergency operations were closed. Patients were directed to request medical records by leaving a message.
Before the hospital closed, it served just eight patients in a behavioral health unit, said Dennis Davis, chief legal officer for Rural Hospital Group Consolidated LLC. The Kansas City, Mo.-based group purchased the hospital for $3.85 million in 2018 from the city of Wellington’s health authority.
Davis said ownership invested an additional $2 million in cash into operations and hoped to make the hospital viable by centralizing back office functions. The group manages hospitals in Hillsboro, Kan., and Marion, Ky., that are financially stable, he said.
"This is the first hospital we’ve had to close, and its a very unpleasant task," Davis said. "The city of Wellington, authority board, people in Wellington supported us as much as they can. But the only people who admit patients to hospitals are doctors, and when you don’t have the doctors’ support, a small, rural hospital cannot make it."
Davis said physicians preferred to send patients to hospitals in Wichita.
"Did they bypass us a lot? Yes," Taton said. "They were guarded. I felt they were coming around and would admit several people a week."
The hospital's roots in Wellington extend more than century.
St. Luke's Hospital, operated by the Episcopal Church, opened in 1910 with a nursing school and living quarters for students. A board of trustees elected by city residents took over management in 1925.
St. Luke's merged with Wellington Hospital in 1994 to become Sumner Community Hospital.
The 63-bed medical facility provided advanced imaging, general surgery, lab services, geriatric behavioral health, residential care, short-term rehabilitation and other forms of care.
The closing comes amid heightened concerns about the spread of the coronavirus in Kansas. Four people in Johnson County have tested positive for COVID-19, and a Wyandotte County man died after being infected with the virus at a long-term care facility. Authorities on Friday said a Butler County man also tested positive, bringing the total confirmed cases in Kansas to six.
"The coronavirus is going to be difficult for rural hospitals because they don’t have quarantine abilities," Davis said.
Laura Lombard, who is seeking the Democratic nomination in the 4th District congressional race, blamed Senate President Susan Wagle and other Republicans who stand in the way of Medicaid expansion. Small hospitals would benefit from federally funded health care coverage made available through Medicaid expansion.
"Our rural communities are unnecessarily losing their hospitals due to lack of funding," Lombard said. "Yesterday, in the middle of the most significant health crisis we have seen in a generation, this obstructionism resulted in the closure of a health care facility here in the 4th District."
Wagle, a Republican from Wichita who is running for the GOP nomination in the U.S. Senate race, said "it’s sad that a political challenger is trying to tie the challenges rural hospitals face with the left’s obsession for government-run health care."
"Simply look across the border to Nebraska and we see a state that expanded Medicaid but is still losing rural hospitals," Wagle said. "We hope in the future she will learn the facts before speaking about an important issue for thousands of Kansans."