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April 11, 2016

Hospital on defense: Barwis defends funding plan following OPM ‘attack’

BRISTOL — Bristol Hospital president Kurt Barwis and local legislators have more questions than answers following a scathing letter this week from Ben Barnes, state Office and Policy Management secretary, accusing the hospital of using taxpayer monies for extravagances in a lean budget year.

“Why the attack? I can’t imagine why I’m being singled out,” Barwis said Wednesday. “It makes no sense. And the level of criticism, the tone and kind of accusations in that letter, I can’t fathom why he did that.”

Barnes’ office sent the letter to Barwis, various legislators and local news media outlets simultaneously.

The letter said “that Bristol Hospital is using state government money in the form of Medicaid supplemental payments to finance construction of new facility expansions.”

It added that a new outpatient facility, i.e. Bristol Hospital’s planned Depot Square development, is not needed and the state is facing cuts while the hospital’s website boats more than 120 job openings.

The bottom line, Barnes said, is that he would like a “full disclosure” of funding for the proposed Depot Square development.

Gian-Carl Casa, OPM undersecretary for Legislative Affairs, responded by email to questions asked of Barnes Tuesday.

Bristol Hospital was the only one to receive a letter from Barnes, Casa said in the email.

When asked why the letter was sent, Casa said that, according to recent news reports, “the viability of this (construction) project had been threatened by proposed reductions in supplemental payments by the state under the Medicaid program … The obvious conclusion is that Bristol Hospital is using state government money in the form of Medicaid supplemental payments to finance construction of new facility expansions.”
Barwis said that the statement is “egregious and totally inaccurate.”

“This totally caught me off guard,” he said. “I thought we had a good relationship with the OPM.”

In earlier interviews last month, Barwis said that unless the state reimbursements came through, the Depot Square project would be ended.
Barwis said Wednesday that the statement still holds true but not because the hospital is using the Medicaid reimbursements for the project.
“If, in fact, we never receive that money, I’ve got bigger issues than Depot Square,” he said. “If that money doesn’t come through, I have to stop all capital expenditures and have to refocus everything we’re doing. We’re already running lean.”

The Depot Square project would be paid for “100 percent” by the developer, Barwis said, adding that the hospital would provide the design and lease back the office space, moving offices that are now spread throughout Bristol to one centralized “non-ambulatory” location.

“Any expenditure would come back to us as part of negotiations with the developer,” he said. “The question of whether the land would be owned by the developer or hospital is an unknown at this point, but our intent is to finance 100 percent of the project through the developer.”
However, he added, the letter and its publicity could actually sound the death knell for the hospital’s plans, he said.

“This letter could give potential developers great pause. It could have a damning affect on the project,” Barwis said. “It could get tied up in legal issues. By sending this letter and making the kind of accusations he did, it could actually cause prospective developers to walk away from the project and then this project won’t go forward.”

In terms of the use for the reimbursement money “it goes directly to patient care,” he said. The hospital is reimbursed roughly 80 cents for every dollar it spends on patients through the Medicaid program.

As for employment opportunities, Barwis said the hospital has been looking to fill clinical spots that are often very competitive, and many of the others are part time or per diem. Many physicians have turned down offers because there is no facility for them, again going back to the Depot Square plan, Barwis added.

“The state has built them all over the place. They’re everywhere and they’re a good thing,” Barwis said. “We’re doing this for the right reasons. The goal of moving health care service out of hospital settings makes us more efficient and less costly.”

As of Wednesday, spending any reimbursements on patient care or improving the quality of care is moot, as the hospital has yet to receive the $5.6 million it is already owed from the state, a figure that will go up to about $8 million by June 30.

That is one of the things that raises the ire of state legislators.

In a letter composed by Sen. Henri Martin and Reps. Whit Betts and Cara Pavalock, outspoken proponents of the hospital, the trio said they are “very angry and upset” by Barnes’ letter.

“We are calling on the governor’s budget chief to retract comments made to Bristol Hospital officials in his provocative and slanderous letter which contained several unsubstantiated allegations,” they said in a statement Wednesday

Martin said he sees the letter as setting the stage, not only for holding back reimbursements already owed, but for holding back future funding.
“It’s almost like they’re setting the table up for the hospital not to be funded.”

Barwis said his main focus now is to find answers from Barnes and continue rallying for the hospital.

“He comments about getting 1,600 emails,” he said. “Clearly our voice and advocacy from our community is amazing. No matter what we do, we would not be in the position we are without the support of community.”