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County seeks to sell home health agency

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Wilson County intends to sell its public home health agency after 50 years of operation, officials announced Wednesday.

County commissioners will consider adopting a resolution declaring their intent to sell or lease Wilson County Home Health at their regular meeting scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday, April 2, according to a public notice in The Wilson Times.

This is the first step in a lengthy legal process, officials said.

The county will negotiate the terms of a lease or sale of the agency, the public notice states. Wilson County Home Health, which currently has 32 staff members including nurses, operates out of the Wilson County Health Department.

“Our top priorities are our patients and our employees,” Teresa Ellen, the county’s health director, told The Wilson Times. “This decision comes after many attempts to improve revenues while maintaining quality care. Our staff and leadership have been superb in adjusting to changes in recent years, but the positive revenue numbers just are not there. We want all of our employees and patients to be treated with the greatest respect and dignity through this difficult transition.”

The agency currently serves 350 patients and made more than 33,000 in-home visits last year.

FINANCIALLY UNSUSTAINABLE

Ellen met with agency staffers individually Wednesday ahead of the official public notice appearing in today’s newspaper. The public notice must be published 10 days prior to the April 2 meeting.

Ellen told home health staff that after a careful review of the last five fiscal years and after numerous strategies to financially sustain the agency, officials decided to present the commissioners with the option of selling it, according to her email to staff.

“It is not the desire of the board of health, the county commissioners nor of the leadership team at the Wilson County Health Department to proceed in this manner for any other reason than we are unable to financially sustain home health past this current fiscal year,” according to Ellen’s email to staff. “We have supported the work and the valued staff for more than five years without positive revenues, and sadly, that is simply all we are able to do as an agency.”

Assistant County Manager Ron Hunt said the county will be offering retention incentives for home health agency staff who stay on through the transition. He said some of the employees are eligible for retirement as well.

“Our goal is to retain employees to assist with patient care throughout the transition,” Hunt said, adding that Ellen will also be reaching out to other health departments in the region as well as other health providers in helping agency staff find other positions.

REVENUE LOSS

Since fiscal years 2012-13, the home health agency has lost roughly $1.7 million in revenue. And changes at the state and federal levels have chipped away the county’s ability to provide quality care, Hunt said. He said revenues continue to decline due to cuts in Medicare reimbursement rates and a freeze in Medicaid rates.

Ellen has spent the past five years working hard along with staff to make cuts to sustain the home health agency, which continues to operate at a substantial loss, according to county officials.

Some of those efforts in recent years included decreasing home health’s budget by $1,045,000 since 2014 and reducing supply costs. The county also eliminated 23 staff positions over the past few years, Hunt said.

The agency also tried to outsource its billing process last year in hopes of gaining more revenue. But it didn’t help and officials returned the billing process in-house.

BID PROCESS

There is already a potential buyer for Wilson County Home Health — In-Home Healthcare Partnership, according to the public notice. The company is a joint venture between Duke LifePoint and LHC, according to county officials.

While In-Home Healthcare Partnership is a potential buyer, the county will have an open bid process for others interested in buying or leasing agency.

Hunt said the ultimate goal is to find a provider who is committed to Wilson County and providing local and quality care for its residents.

CARE, COMPASSION AND DEDICATION

Ellen expressed her appreciation to home health staff for their hard work and dedication to the agency’s patients.

“Your reputations as providers are stellar and your willingness to try new approaches to running this agency these past few years is not only commendable but impressive,” Ellen wrote in a letter to staff. “I thank you for your care, compassion and unwavering dedication.”

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