Illinois budget impasse hurts local critical access hospital

The health care systems families rely on in Illinois are feeling financial strain as the state gets ready to wrap up its second full year without a budget.

Bigger health care systems such as Southern Illinois Healthcare say they’re owed more than $70 million combined in unpaid Medicaid and state employee health insurance. Smaller groups, such as Franklin Hospital in Benton, Illinois, say they’re now owed more than $2 million. Hospital leaders say, while bigger groups may be able to weather the political storm from the budget impasse, the situation for their small, critical access hospital is very serious.

Inside Franklin Hospital, Jeanne Bierman does her best to make sure there are enough supplies to fill any and every patient demand.  But, without the $2 million owed by the state, supply vendors often go unpaid. Lately, it’s left the supply stock running slim in some spots.

"We usually have a backup of eight cases of normal saline. We were down to one bag of saline. Fortunately, we were able to get an emergency supply from our pharmacy," Bierman said. The hospital says it will always find a way to provide supplies for patients, but many leaders worry their current supply vendors will cut them off unless they can catch up on payments.

"I mean, I probably get one demand letter a week from my vendors saying they’re going to cut us off if we don’t pay out or get caught up to a certain degree," said Franklin Hospital CEO and CFO Jim Johnson. He said the financial experts often have to prioritize payments, making sure payroll is met while vendors may wait for payments.

The hospital is in no risk of closure, but Johnson said he worries about the future of the hospital should the impasse in Springfield continue. The 16-bed critical access hospital serves the area with a 24-hour emergency room service but treats 25,000 patients in rural health clinics annually. The hospital has had to reduce some staff hours and make cuts where it can, but it’ll need to see some state funding soon.

"You know, we’re just trying to get by and it makes it really tough for a small, critical access hospital in an economically depressed area," Johnson said.

With the closest hospitals 20 miles south and 25 miles north, the hospital in Benton serves a specific community. Any loss to services could have a direct impact on patient health and outlook.

Franklin Hospital Accountant Celeste Higgins is constantly fielding phone calls from supply vendors wanting to receive payment from the hospital. She said even if they can’t offer much, it’s important they hear from her regularly if only to update out-of-state providers on the state’s ongoing budget issues. She said it’s a frustrating situation on both sides.

"At this point, a lot of them are saying, ‘You know, I’m a business. I need my money, too,’ And it’s getting to the stage where they’re wanting to turn us over to collection and so it’s very, very difficult," said Higgins.

"Our saving grace is that Medicare pays on a fairly timely basis. And we’re hoping to get some Medicare money in here over the next few weeks to help us get through this time of need," Johnson said.

"Franklin County needs us here, and we’re not here to make money. We just need to have enough money to keep going, so we can care for the community,” Bierman said. After months of seeing health care quality put at risk around Illinois, Bierman said she hopes soon lawmakers will finally pass a budget and release funding.

Hospital workers and leaders say they’ve called and written letters to lawmakers, but now they need your help telling lawmakers they need funding and a budget. The state of Illinois has been without a budget since July of 2015.

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