Regional General Hospital Williston, Levy County’s only hospital, is in debt and behind on its utility bills, placing doubt on the hospital’s future.
Devaiah Pagidipati, who owns the hospital, says he has spent $6 million of his own money to keep it open in the last two years. Pagidipati, a Harvard Medical School graduate and pediatric anesthesiologist, lives in Ocala and owns several businesses there, including Physician Partners, a health care facility for seniors.
“I came to this country with nothing,” Pagidipati said. “I built a nice business in Ocala. I want to give back to the community, but I didn’t expect it to be this bad.”
Indigent care, or medical care for patients who don’t have health care, costs the hospital about $2 million a year, according to Joey Lander, the chief compliance officer for the hospital.
The hospital, once known as Tri-County Hospital, has existed for 50 years. The next closest hospitals are in Gainesville and Ocala. Lander said the hospital has taken a positive turn since Pagidipati purchased it in 2014, shortly after it went through bankruptcy reorganization in 2013.
Williston City Manager Scott Lippmann said the city is happy to work with the hospital and is in the process of creating a payment plan for the hospital to pay the city the money it owes for utilities. The hospital has made some payments, it just needs help, Lippmann said.
“If the city were to cut off the utilities, that hospital would disappear literally overnight, and once it’s gone, it’s very doubtful that it would ever come back in any form,” he said. “That’s just not a good thing for Levy County. We don’t want the hospital to close. We don’t want it to fail.”
Six months ago, Lander said he thought it was likely the hospital would close, but now he thinks it can be saved. There are still improvements to be made, including mending the hospital’s reputation with residents after a short period of “not-so-good service” while under different ownership, he said.
“Since we’ve been here, we’ve seen there’s been an enormous turnaround, but you’re trying to overcome the ghost of the past,” Lander said. “You’re trying to overcome the bad service that people equated with the hospital previously and it has been a challenge.”
Along with outstanding utility bills, the debt from the bankruptcy and previous owners adds to the financial burden taken on by Pagidipati when he purchased the hospital. He is focused on keeping the hospital running and paying his employees, something a previous owner failed to do, he said. The hospital currently employs about 150 people.
“Dr. P. made a commitment to the people when he came in and took over that they would never have to worry about their paycheck and, of course, that’s a commitment that he’s lived up to,” Lander said. “Nobody’s not been paid.”
The employees who worked at the Williston hospital in 2011 under the ownership of Jerry Gillman remember when getting a paycheck on time, or even at all, was unlikely. Gillman owned the hospital when it was known as Tri-County Hospital.
Michael Webb, a physician’s assistant, was working at the hospital in the emergency room in 2011, but left when he was no longer receiving his paychecks. He said the hospital is an integral part of the community. As a medical professional, he said if he had an emergency, it would depend on the situation to determine whether he would go the Williston hospital or one in Gainesville, where he lives.
“Having worked in the emergency room [in Williston], I know that if you had patients who had serious endocrinology problems or serious liver problems or serious heart and brain problems you would want to seek care elsewhere,” Webb said.
About 4 percent of patients transported by Levy County emergency medical services were taken to the Williston hospital in the last two and a half years, according to numbers provided by the Levy County Department of Public Safety.
Jason Jones, the medical director of the Levy County Department of Public Safety, said patients who are not taken to Williston are most often taken to hospitals in Gainesville or Ocala.
Pagidipati said he thinks missing out on these patients is one of the Williston hospital’s biggest problems. He said patients should be brought to the Williston hospital to be stabilized because of the shorter distance and wait time, and then taken elsewhere if they need further care.
Jones said the protocol to determine which hospital patients are taken to was set in place before he became medical director in 2014 and has not changed.
“RGH is an important hospital in our community, but it lacks many of the emergency capabilities provided by neighboring hospitals,” Jones said.
Pagidipati has added doctors, departments and machines to the hospital, including nuclear medicine and urology departments, a lithotripter to treat kidney stones and an AU680 machine for drug screening. He said he is committed to the hospital.
Despite these additions to the Williston hospital, it is not a trauma center, which Jones said many of the patients transported by Levy County EMS require. The closest trauma center to Levy County is UF Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville, a level-one trauma center.
“Whatever it takes, I’m going to make this work—I’m determined,” Pagidipati said. “After putting in this much money, I sincerely don’t want this hospital to close.”