This is a very odd business, the telling of the news. It’s even more odd as part of an independent media operation. You work weird hours, meet all kinds of people, find yourself in lots of odd places and odd situations, and adhere — oddly enough — to an old-fashioned principle of right and wrong. That means we tell stories, but we also take up causes.
The problem — in business as in life — is that right and wrong are not always black and white. So sometimes you find yourself out there on the skinny branches all alone, about to fall, the ground a long way down but holding on to the gut feeling that you’re on the right track.
Such is the case with The Smoky Mountain News and our reporting on Haywood Regional Medical Center’s problems. That coverage started back in 2004, long before any of our brethren in the media were seeing — or at least reporting — on the problems at the hospital. We could have left it alone and not put resources into the story, but it seemed apparent to us that the hospital serving Haywood’s citizens was in a downward spiral. We felt it was important to discuss this with the community.
I bring this up now because of a legal verdict announced this week. Our newspaper and others are carrying reports that an emergency room doctors group — Haywood Emergency Physicians — has won a lawsuit against Haywood Regional Medical Center. The suit stems from the firing of the doctors back in December 2006, when many of the accusations that eventually made headlines in all the regional media were spoken in a public forum for the first time.
Most know of Haywood Regional Medical Center’s demise and near closure, and of its resurrection and new life as part of MedWest with Harris Regional in Sylva and Swain County. All three hospitals are now under the umbrella of a management contract with Carolinas Medical Center based in Charlotte.
It was a legal notice in the Feb. 22, 2008 Asheville Citizen-Times — two years after the firing of the emergency room docs — that alerted the community to HRMC’s near-death experience. Here’s a line from that notice, for those who don’t remember or aren’t familiar with the story: “The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has determined that Haywood Regional Medical Center is not in compliance with the conditions of participation ….”
Problems that led to no Medicare and Medicaid money also led most major insurers to drop the hospital. That basically meant no money coming in. That precipitated a whirlwind of media coverage and change, including the resignation of HRMC CEO David Rice and the head of the HRMC board, the near closure of the hospital as patient numbers dropped almost to zero, and the public disclosure that hospital administrators had created an atmosphere of fear and manipulation that had employees afraid to point out problems or sound alarms.
Four years before this crisis, many physicians had told us that things were bad at HRMC and getting worse, that the administration was not working with physicians but manipulating them. We published stories with anonymous sources — extremely rare for any for any credible news organization — and called into question management decisions. When orthopedists and then anesthesiologists left en masse in 2004, we pointed out problems those docs and others were having with administration. We kept up the reporting in 2005 and 2006.
What did it get us?
Well, our largest advertiser — the hospital — simply went away, dropped us like a rock. Ouch. We wrote it off to the cost of doing business and moved on.
It got worse, and a little odd. I got a call one day from the previous CEO David Rice telling me that our newspaper racks were on the loading ramp in back of the hospital and that I could come pick them up. HRMC was banning The Smoky Mountain News from its property. Sounds a little like Hosni Mubarak and the current media clampdown in Egypt. That’s what we thought, but pleas to hospital board members didn’t get us very far.
Worse, none of the other media was following. We thought that once news started getting out about what was transpiring at HRMC, others would surely begin reporting. Well, they didn’t, at least not until February 2008 and the beginning of the public crisis.
The docs who use to make up Haywood Emergency Physicians, by winning this lawsuit, are vindicated. Those doctors said long ago that they were done wrong, and they also complained that their situation was not unique. The hospital administration was creating serious problems. It turns out that they were right on.
Vindication isn’t something newspapers should consider in choosing what to cover, but I’ll admit to some professional and personal satisfaction in how this story has played out over the last seven years since we started reporting on it. There’s a healthy relationship between the medical community and the hospital administration. Many hospital employees are telling us that their professional situation is vastly improved.
More importantly, citizens who need access to medical care are still able to get it right here in the communities we call home. There was a point in the not-too-distant past when that was very much in doubt.