Northern Maine Medical Center in Fort Kent is battling “very significant financial challenges” and working to close a deficit that was projected at $9.4 million at the start of their fiscal year, hospital officials said Wednesday.
Hospital officials said Wednesday they have closed the deficit by about $6 million by increasing revenue-making services to patients and taking some cost-cutting measures.
They insist there have been no layoffs, even as a number of staff departures in recent months have alarmed patients and leaders of the communities served by the hospital along the Canadian border.
The Maine Monitor has confirmed 11 doctors, nurses or other health care workers have left in recent months or are planning to leave. A list of 28 doctors, nurses and other health care workers from the hospital or affiliated practices who are allegedly leaving is circulating among former NMMC employees and their allies in the community.
Alain Bois, the chief operating officer of NMMC, said that list is incorrect. He also pointed out that hospitals throughout the country have seen widespread departures by doctors and nurses who are burned out by the pandemic.
He and other officials insisted NMMC has sufficient personnel to provide care, and that they are turning around the 49-bed acute care community hospital by focusing on the needs of the region.
The hospital announced last week that it was closing its obstetrics unit, citing low birth rates and staffing shortages. Bois said the closure was for safety reasons — the unit did not have enough nurses to stay open, officials say — and not because of hospital finances.
But some local residents worry that the closure of that unit is a sign of trouble for the hospital itself.
“I can tell you that people in the community are concerned about the future of the hospital,” Rev. Jean-Paul Labrie of St. John Vianney Parish said.
Echoing other leaders and patients, Labrie said the obstetrics unit closure was a “great inconvenience for young families.”
“Young families coming in is just fantastic, but I think this hospital (announcement) is going to hurt us,’’ said Darrell Mitchell, a first selectman in St. Francis. “I just see it as a total negative.”
Much of the focus among patients and former employees has centered on Jeff Zewe, the chief executive officer who started full time at NMMC in May 2022 after a transition period.
Zewe resigned from a Pennsylvania healthcare system in 2021, where he managed a merger between hospitals in Bradford, Pa., and Olean, N.Y. The merger was controversial among patients in that region, according to the Olean Times Herald.
Zewe, Bois, and other hospital officials agreed to speak with reporters Wednesday amid the mounting concern among patients and community leaders in and around Fort Kent. A newly formed citizens group, called Save NMMC, is planning a public meeting at the Fort Kent Town Office at 6 pm Tuesday to discuss the future of the hospital and its leadership, community members said.
Zewe and other NMCC executives pointed out that rural hospitals nationally are struggling, particularly during and after the pandemic, and hundreds have closed. The NMMC officials stressed that the initiatives they are putting in place are meant to keep NMMC viable.
“We’ve got some very significant financial challenges that have been happening,” Zewe said.
He recalled that outside auditors and hospital financial officials projected a serious financial situation last year. One initial projection said the hospital would run a $10.2 million loss in 2023, then grow to $13 million by 2025.
“They told us and the board that if you keep doing what you’ve done over the last years, the hospital will close by Christmas 2023,” Zewe said Wednesday. “We’re not going to let this place close … The hospital is not going to close.”
Bois noted that the budget in earlier years was also bleak, but the deficit was largely covered up by state and federal Covid money. That stream of money has ended.
Zewe said the hospital has shrunk the projected losses by focusing on care that helps fill beds and bring in revenue. The facility has stepped up its care for mental health, surgery, radiology, orthopedics and other services, responding to the needs of patients in the region, hospital officials said.
“We’re in the middle of a mental health crisis,” Zewe said. “We’ve got a lot people who need help with mental resources.”
Adding beds for behavioral health will add $2 million to the hospital’s bottom line, he said. The number of surgeries also increased. He’s also focusing on cardiology and cancer care, as the hospital tries to tackle high mortality rates in Aroostook County.
Those new areas of emphasis change the recruiting strategy for the hospital.
“There’s a lot of talk about doctors leaving. We can debate about how many doctors you need, but I can submit to you we have plenty of primary care doctors for our service area,” Zewe said. “We’re fine with primary care. What we want to focus on is specialists, in particular oncology.”
Zewe described the decision to close the obstetrics unit later this month as “emotional” and “difficult,” but driven by the shortage of obstetrics nurses. The hospital estimates 40 to 45 babies were born annually at NMMC, which Zewe said has the lowest number of births in the state.
A hospital statement said expectant mothers can deliver babies at Cary Memorial Hospital, which is about 40 miles away in Caribou. Zewe said his hospital was discussing with Cary Medical the establishment of outpatient clinics for prenatal and postpartum care at NMMC.
“It’s not what you want to do, but it is the right thing to do,” he said.
This story was updated with details about an upcoming community meeting.