Local control of Down East Community Hospital may resume soon

Posted July 08, 2011, at 10:24 p.m.

MACHIAS, Maine — Court-ordered control of Down East Community Hospital, which began two years ago, is nearly over after a hearing Thursday in Kennebec County Superior Court.

After a successful Medicare survey and a major overhaul of hospital policies and operations, Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services has recommended ending emergency receivership of the Down East hospital.

The hospital was placed in receivership in July 2009, with Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems of Brewer taking over operations after a number of investigations into clinical and administrative complaints.

The highest-profile incident at DECH was the death in January 2008 of Reid Emery, 61, 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 snowbank.

An investigation by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services into Emery’s death found, among a number of other deficiencies, that hospital staff had failed to meet the safety needs of the patient.

Other investigations identified problems in emergency care and surgical protocols, and in November 2008 patient files apparently stolen from the hospital washed up on a nearby riverbank.

Doug Jones, acting DECH president and CEO, praised Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems on Friday for its assistance and expertise in revamping the hospital’s operations.

After agreeing to the receivership, Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems took immediate steps to correct deficiencies that could have affected the hospital’s Medicare-Medicaid provider status.

Attorneys for both the state and DECH told Justice Robert E. Murray on Thursday that the goals for which the receivership was established have been accomplished, according to Jones. Murray also accepted written comments submitted by members of the public and considered the effect of the receivership on DECH’s contract with the Maine State Nurses Association. Jones reported that at the end of the hearing, the justice requested submission of a proposed order that would allow the DECH board of trustees to resume authority over governance of the hospital and that would continue the receivership only as needed to wind up outstanding legal issues that arose during the receivership.

“DECH and EMHS are confident that once the proposed order has been provided to the court, which could occur as early as next week, the receivership will be terminated,” EMHS president and CEO M. Michelle Hood said Friday. “EMHS has been proud to support DECH and the Machias community, and it’s satisfying to see the hospital is now able to stand on its own and planning for a successful future.”

Jones said that DECH plans to sustain the momentum of improvement at the hospital.

“DECH owes EMHS a big thank you for not only agreeing to take on this responsibility, but also for sending us considerable expertise in many areas, including nursing, operations, governance, and communications,” Jones said. “Under the leadership of Michelle Hood, EMHS staff stepped in, launched a plan of corrective action, and helped us tackle some significant challenges, and they did so in a friendly and extremely capable manner.”

Jones also said that in less than two years of receivership, DECH has updated its Code of Conduct and begun holding people accountable to it, improved transparency and communication, launched a quality improvement program that state officials called one of the best they’ve ever seen, and established a new board of trustees and chairman, among other accomplishments.

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