11/27/06 — Duplin's hospital will battle shortfalls

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Duplin's hospital will battle shortfalls

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on November 27, 2006 1:45 PM

Between rising health care costs and falling numbers of insured customers, Duplin General Hospital has been losing money on its operations for several years. And while the facility was able to count an overall profit this year, that losing trend is expected to continue for at least a couple more years.

"We're kind of living off banked dollars (from profitable years). When they're gone, we won't be able to pay off our bills," hospital president and chief executive officer Doug Yarbrough said. "We can still afford to lose some more, but we don't want to lose all of our reserve dollars."

He said he is confident that Duplin General won't be put in that situation.

"I think we have a bright future," he said. "I think in a few years, when we work through our strategy, we'll be successful again. It's not something you can change overnight. It's a long-term strategy."

Earlier this month, during a report to the Duplin County Board of Commissioners, Yarbrough gave a basic outline of that plan.

"It's kind of a three-part strategy," he said.

Those parts are the creation of a marketing strategy, facility renovations and an increasing partnership with University Health Systems, of which Pitt County Memorial Hospital is the flagship.

The marketing strategy, Yarbrough explained, is something the hospital has never done before. To help implement it, they hired a new marketing director in June.

"We want to attract more people to our hospital," he said.

To do that, officials will have to make people more aware of the hospital's services, which include a woman's center, a 24-hour emergency department, an intensive care unit, full surgical services, physical therapy and diagnostic imaging.

And while patients requiring serious trauma care or major surgery often are taken to Pitt, marketing director Laura Maready said, Duplin General does provide all types of primary care.

"Our mission here is to improve the health of the people in our community," she said.

The key, though, Yarbrough said, is to convince insured patients to take advantage of those services.

Right now, almost 10 percent of the hospital's patients are uninsured, and many of those bills often go uncollected.

"As the percentage of uninsured patients has grown over the (last four) years, that has cut into our bottom line," Yarbrough said. "But when people come into our hospital, into our emergency room, we can't turn them down. We have to treat them like paying customers."

Also helping to attract patients will be the hospital's upcoming renovations, he said.

The last major work done on the building was 10 years ago when the emergency department, surgical suites and woman's center were added. Now, he said, it's time for another update.

"We don't really know exactly what we want to do," Yarbrough said. "We're working on our facility plan now. It's taken us longer than we thought and will probably be another several months.

"But we know we need to upgrade our outpatient and imaging services and maybe some inpatient areas."

There's no timetable, though, for when such renovations might begin.

The third piece of the puzzle, and perhaps the most important, is the blossoming partnership with University Health Systems.

It was with their help that Duplin General formulated the marketing plan it's now implementing and it's with that help that the hospital is doing its facility study.

University Health also is helping the hospital improve its billing practices.

"We're starting to get more aggressive (collecting debts). We have to," Yarbrough said.

And now, hospital officials are looking at the possibility of entering into a management contract with University Health. If they do, that would mean UHS would be responsible for the hospital's day-to-day operations.

"It would create another layer," Yarbrough said. "But it also would allow a lot more expertise than we have now as a stand-alone hospital. It's just getting harder and harder to be a small, independent hospital."