Williston’s Regional General Hospital paid off its outstanding utility bill debt by completing a repayment plan with the city, which supplies electric, water and other utilities for the hospital.
The hospital submitted it’s final payment of $3,934.79 to the city March 15. The hospital’s delinquent utility bills accumulated between August 2018 and January 2019 totaled more than $58,000.
City Manager Scott Lippmann explained the city council had agreed to a specific payment plan to clear the hospital’s utility debt.
“The hospital got behind on its utility bills, so the owner and the city council agreed to a payment plan, which started out with the hospital paying us $5,000 a week each Friday for a period of time,” he said. “It would then increase to $15,000 for the remaining time until they got current on their bills.”
Lippmann said had the hospital missed a payment, the conditions of the agreement determined that the hospital would essentially be shut down without utilities unless it could pay off the remaining outstanding balance in full, as well as the reconnection fees.
The hospital did not have any issues with completing each of the weekly payments, Lippmann said.
“They have been good about meeting the commitments that they made with us,” he said.
Now that the hospital has successfully cleared its debt with the city, its utility payments should resume as normal.
“They should be paying their utility bill each month now just like everyone else,” Lippmann said. “I don’t foresee an issue, but hopefully they are on firmer footing now.”
Lippmann said that while the repayment plan proved to be successful, the city council would most likely not extend the opportunity again should the hospital find itself in a similar situation.
Should the hospital falter again, two Williston residents are taking steps to prevent the hospital from permanently closing.
Pete Burger, 22, of Williston, has been working alongside Levy County Commissioner Matt Brooks to secure the hospital’s license with the city of Williston. Burger, who worked for the hospital under a previous ownership, is concerned about what might happen if its current owner, Jorge Perez, decided to abandon the hospital.
Brooks, the county’s vice commission chair, said his and Burger’s efforts were aimed at creating dialogue between the city, the county and the hospital ensure everyone was on the same page regarding the hospital’s status.
“There was the point in time where there was no communication for the hospital owners, staff and the city,” Brooks said. “That kind of caused concern for Burger and myself, with no lines of communication.”
Brooks said Perez offered a verbal agreement via a conference call stating that he would turn over the license should the hospital become at major risk of failure.
“My whole drive was a contingency — the big what if — if something unforeseen happens and Perez does have to walk away, then can we get the license?” Brooks said. “He did confirm that he would have no problem signing that license over to the city, county, or both, however we wanted to work it out.”
While there is only a verbal agreement at the moment, Brooks said Perez’s word is satisfying for the time being.
“We do not have anything in writing, and nothing has been voted on by our board or the city council,” he said. “We are pretty much taking him at his word that he is still making everything right. I think it would be a little bit premature to set up an agreement at this point in time when he is making every effort to make sure the hospital is viable for the foreseeable future.”
The verbal agreement between Brooks and Perez eased Burger’s worries, reassuring him that there would still be an opportunity to reopen the hospital with different ownership should Perez walk away.
Florida has a Certificate of Need program in place, meaning that for new or expanded health care services to be offered, state approval is required, according to the Agency for Health Care Administration’s website.
Burger said this could impact the hospital’s future should Perez fail to transfer the license to the city because it would create problems for any potential new owners.
“I’m guessing that if that license goes away completely, we’ll never have a license here again,” Burger said. “I hope he sticks with this plan to give the license to the city because we really do need a hospital here.”
Both Brooks and Burger expressed concerns about whether Williston would be able to keep its hospital should Perez, at some point, abandon the facility.
“For a leader in the community, I would rather work with an existing owner and hospital than something go away and us never have it again,” Brooks said. “Quite frankly, I think if he goes away, we will never have a hospital here again.”
Brooks said the city commission would draw up a more solid agreement should the hospital again seem to be in imminent trouble or if the hospital cuts off communications again.
Neither Perez nor any Regional General Hospital officials were responsive to requests for an interview.
With 102 reported rural hospital closures since January 2010, the situation of Williston’s Regional General Hospital is common across the nation, according to the University of North Carolina Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research.
“The hospital is extremely critical to the community,” Brooks said. “To our community in particular, the closing of the hospital would mean a loss of jobs and loss of critical health services — being able to transfer non-trauma patients to a closer medical facility for our EMS service — that’s huge.”
Regional General Hospital is operating solely as a walk-in clinic at this time, with the patient floor and emergency room still closed. The hospital serves Levy, Gilchrist and Dixie counties.