Peter Wright, president of Bridgton Hospital, gives community members an update on the hospital's turnaround and growth plans on Nov. 7, 2019, at Lakes Region High School in Bridgton. Credit: Lori Valigra | BDN

BRIDGTON, Maine — Peter Wright knew he was in for a tough battle when he became president of Bridgton Hospital almost eight months ago.

In a recent “state of the hospital” address to local residents and staff, Wright said the hospital has made gains in revenue and filled empty positions, and expansion plans are in the works. But work has to be done to regain the trust of patients who left during the hospital’s turmoil over the past year.

“The first six months of the year were tough, particularly in Bridgton,” Wright said last Thursday. “We haven’t solved the complete issues. There’s more to come.” He said the biggest concern is patients having access to doctors.

Bridgton Hospital is part of the Central Maine Healthcare group that also comprises Rumford Hospital and Central Maine Medical Center.

The group has been struggling to turn around years of financial losses.

The stress on the hospital system worsened in 2018, when Central Maine Healthcare’s new CEO, Jeff Brickman, brought in a new electronic health care system that some doctors thought was too cumbersome and time-consuming to use.

Physicians across the system rebelled. Bridgton Hospital lost five of its 15 physicians during the turmoil, a spokesperson for Central Maine Healthcare said earlier this year.

With patients worried about where to get care, a local citizen group In February asked municipal officials and residents to help it shift control of the hospital from parent Central Maine Healthcare to MaineHealth, a health care group that includes Maine Medical Center.

And in May a federal regulatory agency told Central Maine Medical Center, which serves as a referral hospital for the most critical cases, that it had to improve its patient-care procedures or it would lose funding.

The bad publicity for the hospital system was adding up. And access to primary care remained a top concern among patients at Bridgton Hospital.

“We’ve focused on getting back into the community,” Wright said. Since he became Bridgton Hospital’s president, he has met with selectboards in towns that use the hospital, and held public forums like the one last week.

Making a comeback

Later that year, Central Maine Healthcare hired 118 new staff across all three hospitals and clinics.

And Bridgton Hospital, which employs 225 people currently, has hired four doctors who will join its staff between now and next February, he said.

While the hospital also attempts to mend financially, it experienced some positive signs. Net revenue rose by $1.2 million to $12.3 million compared to the first quarter of last fiscal year, which runs from July through September. The figures for fiscal year 2019 that ended June 30 are not yet final.

Operating income also rose, enough to move the hospital from a loss to a gain. It had $506,679 in operating income in the first quarter of this fiscal year compared to a loss of $195,230 in the first quarter of last year. The hospital was able to restructure its debt with a better interest rate.

For the full year, net revenue is estimated to be down $1.3 million to $45.6 million compared to the hospital’s expected budget of $46.9 million. While operating income still is predicted to be a loss, it is expected to decline by $739,073 to $1.1 million.

“We haven’t fixed it all yet,” Brickman said. “The first six months of the year weren’t great financially because they weren’t great operationally. We were distracted. The [hospital] team that was here did a great job regrouping.”

The hospital has gotten onto the national radar for its quality of care, Wright said. Leapfrog, a national hospital ratings group, ranked Bridgton Hospital in the top 17 of critical access hospitals in the nation recently. Wright said that of the total 5,000 hospitals in the country, 1,500 are critical access facilities, which are small, rural hospitals with limited inpatient and outpatient care.

Future expansion

Bridgton Hospital also opened a walk-in clinic in North Bridgton in February where patients can get fast, less expensive care than in the emergency room.

“We get 12,500 emergency room visits every year and up to 40 percent of those don’t belong in the emergency department,” Wright said. A walk-in clinic visit averages $200 compared to $1,000 in the emergency department.

Wright said his plan is to provide as much care as possible locally. More critical patients can be transferred to Central Maine Healthcare for treatment.

Plans over the next dozen years call for a more comprehensive campus with a new medical office building, independent and assisted living buildings and a memory care facility.

“The future is about outpatient treatment, clinics and technology,” Wright said. “We’re well positioned for the next 20 years to handle what we believe the future of healthcare is.”

Regaining trust

Still, patients who left Bridgton Hospital after their primary care physician quit are taking a wait-and-see view.

“My trust is difficult to regain,” said Bridgton resident Ursula Flaherty. “I’d like to use the hospital, but I’m not sure now that it can serve me.”

Flaherty’s physician left Bridgton and went to nearby Norway. Flaherty followed her.

“I want a hospital that is really good again,” she said. “The proof is in the pudding. They need to do more than talk.”