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story.lead_photo.caption A sign warns patients away Wednesday at the North Metro Medical Center in Jacksonville after the facility closed its emergency room Tuesday night as it converts to geriatric psychiatric care.

Jacksonville's only hospital closed its emergency room Tuesday night and has changed its focus to caring for elderly psychiatric patients, the city's mayor said Wednesday.

Mayor Bob Johnson said he had known for about two months that North Metro Medical Center was planning the change, but he expected the hospital to issue a news release before it happened.

Instead, he said, he learned of the closure when a television reporter called him Tuesday night.

"It didn't come as a shock to me," Johnson said. "It shocked [me] the way they did it."

He said he's been in discussions with other hospitals about a deal that would allow the city to reopen the emergency room, with the ultimate goal of having a new owner operate the entire hospital.

"My concern is the 30,000 people here," Johnson said. "They need an emergency room, but they also need something they can depend on.

"Whatever we do is going to be with somebody that's dependable, that knows what they're doing and is going to be a name that [residents will] know and trust."

On Wednesday afternoon, the entire hospital appeared to be closed to visitors and patients. Sheets of black plastic covered signs near the parking lot entrance, and the front doors were locked. Signs on the doors said, "Sorry we're closed."

Capt. David Jones, a spokesman for the Jacksonville Fire Department, said patients who would have gone to North Metro Medical Center will now go to CHI St. Vincent North in Sherwood, which is about a nine-minute drive from Jacksonville, or Baptist Health Medical Center in North Little Rock, about 13 minutes away.

Contacted by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Wednesday, hospital Chief Executive Officer Dale Anderson provided a news release, dated Tuesday, describing the change as a shift to a "Micro Hospital Model Hybrid."

"Negotiations are ongoing with the City of Jacksonville to enable an area hospital system to operate a free-standing Emergency Room, complimented with ancillary services such as Radiology, Lab, and Pharmacy, etc., with an associated 'Teaching' element," the release says.

It says the new model also includes Freedom Behavioral Hospital of Central Arkansas LLC and a nearby health clinic and home health agency.

The release cites "industry declining hospital revenues and in-patient volumes" as the reasons for the change.

Allegiance Health Management of Shreveport began leasing the hospital from the city in 2009 and bought it in 2012 for about $10.2 million.

A purchase agreement requires the company or its affiliates to continue to offer "24-hour emergency room services, inpatient services, medical/surgical services, outpatient services and maintain appropriate diagnostic imaging services" for as long as the company "owns the Hospital Assets."

"If I find somebody willing to purchase it, I think that's when [the agreement] comes into play," Johnson said. "I'm letting the lawyers work that out."

The state Department of Health website lists the hospital as having 113 licensed acute-care beds and 31 psychiatric unit beds.

Department spokesman Meg Mirivel said the hospital's licensure changed from that of an acute-care hospital to a psychiatric hospital on Tuesday.

The Jacksonville Fire Department was notified of the closure at 9:43 p.m. Tuesday, Jones said.

Of the 2,960 patients the department transported to a hospital last year, 1,100 went to North Metro Medical Center, he said. The hospital was not part of the state's trauma system, which coordinates the treatment of serious injuries, but it cared for patients with medical and psychiatric emergencies, he said.

Mirivel said the hospital hadn't been part of the trauma system since early 2017.

Allegiance Health Management also operates a hospital in Eureka Springs.

It operated River Valley Medical Center in Dardanelle until June, when that hospital was taken over by Conway Regional Medical Center under a deal with the hospital's board.

In a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Little Rock, the Dardanelle board had asked a judge to appoint a receiver for the hospital, saying the facility's financial troubles had put patients at risk.

Allegiance agreed to give up its lease of the facility as part of a settlement in the lawsuit, according to a news release by the Conway hospital.

According to its Facebook page, Allegiance also operates hospitals in Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi.

Information for this article was contributed by Nyssa Kruse of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Photo by Staton Breidenthal
Jacksonville Mayor Bob Johnson (middle) is shown in this file photo.

A Section on 08/22/2019

Print Headline: Hospital in Jacksonville shifts its focus, closes ER

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