This was them less than two years ago: Independence, Kansas is all too familiar with their hospital failing and the fallout from it. Now, they watch from afar as Topeka seeks to save St. Francis. Fred Meier is the southeast Kansas city’s mayor; he moved his family to the town nearly 25 years ago when he accepted a teaching position. Ironically, he’s also the former chair of the Mercy Hospital Community Board and the Mercy Regional Board of Directors, making him very familiar with what caused the hospital to close in October 2015.
“The St. Francis closing hits close to home for me because it exposes the vulnerability of the common, ordinary Kansan regardless of the size of the community,” Mayor Meier told KSNT News by email. “How do you measure the effect of the loss of doctor/patient relationships, the loss of 1,600 well-paying jobs, the economic impact and as mentioned, the uncertainty and emotional stress when it didn’t have to happen?”
There are differences to be sure. Topeka and its metro area of Shawnee County plus has a much larger population than Independence in Montgomery County. But there too are similarities. Mercy Independence was a charitable Catholic hospital as is St. Francis; and that’s just where the comparison begins.
“Losing healthcare in any community hurts. Mercy closing the hospital in Independence resulted in the loss of approximately 200 jobs. While losing 200 jobs would hurt any community regardless of size, the uncertainty and emotional stress is hard to measure,” the mayor replied, answering a question about the impact the late 2015 closure has had on his city and county.
Leadership of both hospitals (Mercy Independence and St. Francis in Topeka) begged legislators to expand Medicaid in the state to help ensure their survival, but the pleas fell on deaf ears at the time. The Governor and many Republican legislators long held that an expansion would not benefit the poor and truly vulnerable in the state but instead would be a costly burden Kansas could not afford. Just weeks ago the Republican majority in the state legislature changed their position, passing Medicaid expansion in the state only to have the Governor hold fast in his convictions concerning the implications of it—issuing a veto. The legislature failed to override the governor’s check on their political power.
While Medicaid expansion was part of the problem that sealed the death deal for Mercy Independence, it was not solely responsible for the hospital’s failure.
“There’s no doubt not expanding Medicaid was a contributing factor in Mercy’s closing,” Mayor Meier wrote. “Was it the only factor? No.”
Even as phone calls are made and meetings are held behind closed doors in an effort to save St. Francis, the Independence mayor offers encouragement for the future—sharing his own city’s healthcare comeback:
“The market is at work in Independence,” he writes with a hint of hope. “It’s taken awhile, but four area medical centers/hospitals have invested in the community opening clinics. Two providers now offer an urgent care option from 8 am to 8 pm Monday through Saturday. Not have access to 24 hour care or on Sunday’s is an issue. One medical center is building, for lack of a term, a mini-hospital offering an emergency room along with a limited number of observation rooms.”
In the end, the Independence story could quite possibly be re-told in Topeka. St. Francis may survive, but as a hospital industry expert told KSNT News Monday night—the services it provides will likely look very different for the future.
For those living in Independence, the nearest hospitals are almost a half hour away; either in Neodesha or Coffeyville, Kansas. Meanwhile, Topeka would be left with Stormont Vail Health, a trip to one of the smaller, nearby hospitals or an hour’s plus drive to Kansas City. The two cities aren’t even close in size; Independence with it’s 8,958 people and the Capital City with an estimated 127,265. Their respective counties also vary in totals; 32,746 for Montgomery compared with Shawnee County’s population of 178,146. Still, their stories of hospital failures unite them in a shared experience.