MACHIAS, Maine — Down East Community Hospital has been cleared to continue receiving federal Medicare payments for services provided to elderly and disabled patients.
The news announced Wednesday follows a surprise inspection at the hospital earlier this month that found no violations of federal conditions for participating in the Medicare program.
The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS, had threatened in June to cut off Medicare payments in September if problems at the troubled 25-bed hospital weren’t resolved. The deadline for compliance later was extended to Dec. 31.
Interim CEO Doug Jones said Wednesday that the full rescindment comes as a relief.
“The threatened loss of Medicare reimbursements would have had a devastating effect on the hospital,” Jones said Wednesday.
Down East Community Hospital was placed in receivership in July, with Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems of Brewer taking over operations following a number of investigations into clinical and administrative complaints. The receivership status remains, but the CMS decision indicates that significant progress has been made, Jones said.
The highest-profile incident at DECH was the death in January 2008 of 61-year-old patient Reid Emery of Eastport. Emery checked out of the hospital against doctors’ wishes on a cold, snowy evening and, heavily drugged from his stay at the hospital, was found dead the next day in a nearby snow bank.
The CMS investigation into Reid’s death found, among a number of other deficiencies, that hospital staff had failed to meet the safety needs of the patient. Other investigations have identified problems in emergency care and surgical protocols, and in November 2008 patient files apparently stolen from the hospital washed up on a local beach.
Jones said Wednesday that DECH has been working hard to improve patient safety and quality of care, as well as reviewing its administrative and governance practices.
“Every department in the hospital has been working on projects,” he said. In addition to replacing CEO Wayne Dodwell and severing contractual ties with the Tennessee-based company he worked for, the hospital has named new clinical leaders in its emergency department and a new vice president for nursing services, Jones said.
Plans include replacing the existing board of trustees and naming a new advisory board to provide community feedback to the trustees.
Given the recent high-profile public controversy over the hospital’s performance, Jones said, “We felt it was essential to give an extra layer of assurance and accountability to the community.”
An early task for the new board will be to name a permanent CEO, and Jones, who for 10 years served as the top executive at Maine Coast Memorial Hospital in Ellsworth, said he is interested. Formal affiliation between DECH and EMHS, he said, “is not currently on the table.”
Michelle Hood, CEO of EMHS, said the Brewer-based organization remains committed to getting DECH back on its feet.
“Our mission calls for us to do what we can to preserve local access to high quality health care, and our work with Down east Community Hospital is a reflection of that mission,” she said.