Changes affecting the Etowah and Athens campuses of Starr Regional Medical Center are on the horizon, but those changes do not include mothballing the former Woods Memorial Hospital, according to Starr Regional CEO John Workman.

On Friday, Workman confirmed that plans over the next several months include consolidating inpatient care to the Athens campus and make new investments for new programs in Etowah, including emergency care, wound care, psychiatric and long-term care services, as well as outpatient imaging, and others.

"We are going to be making some changes over the next three to six months but we have no plans to close the facility," Workman said.

The issue was raised Thursday afternoon after Starr Regional-Etowah's employees and medical staff, as well as the Citizens Advisory Board, were informed via email that some services would be shifting in the future.

"It's a realignment of where services are going to be offered and putting together plans to make that happen," Workman said.

He reiterated that Starr Regional is one hospital with two locations "and we have assets in different places."

"I really don't want people to think we are closing the hospital," he said. "That's absolutely not true."

Workman noted that "there are a lot of changes in the healthcare industry right now" including reimbursement cuts and shifting services.

"We have to ensure to continue our ability to meet the needs of the community," he said, adding that Starr Regional Medial Center is adapting to those needs by realigning some services between the Athens and Etowah campuses.

Workman said "one or two" employees have been identified for layoff "but we're not having a mass layoff because of this."

"We staff to our volumes," he added. "We evaluate our staffing all the time."

Workman noted that the realignment of services will allow Starr Regional to strengthen what its offers in the region and what most patients need. He said staffers are looking to identify the best places to provide different components included in a comprehensive hospital.

"Once we get closer to sorting all that out ... we'll do some sort of public notice to let people know," he said.

Workman has been CEO over both campuses since July 2012; he plans to retire on April 2.

"Our focus is on growth and also looking at what is happening on the horizon with all these momentous changes that are happening in the health care industry," he said. "We're doing these things to make sure we're positioned well in the future" and will be able to offer more services to the community.

"We are not discontinuing providing these services to the community, we're just looking to where we provide these services," he said.

Workman said he hopes the changes made will be a positive impact to the community.

"We've got to make sure both campuses are able to stay open," he said. "Really, our focus is on providing as many services as we can locally, close to home, and doing that in a quality way.

"Certain things will be available at the Athens campus and certain things will be available at the Etowah campus and a vast majority will be available at both," he said.

However, inpatient care is one aspect that may be best at one campus, he added.

McMinn County Mayor John Gentry, who serves on the local advisory board of Starr Regional's Etowah campus, said this morning our community will still be "fairly blessed" to have even one hospital with inpatient services. He added it sounds like Etowah will still have a large nursing home, some specialty treatments and an ER.

"We're rooting for them that these plans will work to grow services," he said.

In terms of healthcare, Gentry said he understands the same dynamics are taking place here in McMinn County as nationally. He also noted you can see what is going on in the region - Erlanger Medical Center in Chattanooga, Vanderbilt in Nashville, and Hutcheson Medical Center in North Georgia - with hospitals laying off employees or curtailing services.

"Obviously the volumes must not have been there to support the inpatient side of things," Gentry said. "We're definitely seeing the impact of a strained healthcare system with consolidation.

"It's a tough time in healthcare ... we're absolutely witnessing what's going on nationwide in healthcare," he said.

Gentry said McMinn County saw the beginning of those difficulties 15 years ago and that it could not support the ownership of a rural hospital. He said he hopes Starr Regional's plan is successful to bring in new services and expand services, adding he has been impressed with the hospital's ability to provide services in the community.

"If the need is here people will be able to seek those services here, they will return," he said.

Gentry added he knows that insurance changes have affected how healthcare is delivered, but he is not sure it's always in the best interest of the patients. Also, in terms of having a full-service hospital on the eastern side of county, Gentry said, "It's difficult to imaging that not being there."

Workman said Starr Regional is "totally committed" to improving emergency services at both locations.

"We're doing all sorts of great things" and want to be able to continue to improve, he said.


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