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Liberty County Hospital reverses trend


Havre Daily News/Lindsay Brown

A view of Liberty County Hospital and Nursing Home last week.

Many Hi-Line businesses have had trouble adapting to the area's shrinking population, but the Liberty Medical Center in Chester is no longer one of them.

About six years ago, the hospital had too much debt and not nearly enough money coming in. Things were not looking good.

Ronald Gleason was hired as the hospital's CEO five years ago, and today, after some reorganization, the hospital is making more money, recruiting more doctors and upgrading its equipment.

The main change that Gleason brought to Chester was a shift in focus from mostly a long-term nursing home with 11 hospital beds to a 25-bed critical access hospital with 21 nursing home patients.

The shift in focus and facility use allowed the hospital to claim Medicare reimbursements more directly, which led to more money coming in.

"It was pretty clear to me that that kind of change needed to be made, " Gleason said. "Had we not made the change, I'm not sure how much longer we would have survived.

"We are in very good shape financially. We have a very strong balance sheet. "

Gleason explained that another boon to the balance sheet was a debt restructuring on the assisted living center that was built in 2000. Paying a lower rate and changing a few terms of the loan, the hospital now has the financial flexibility to make some upgrades to keep the facility competitive.

"We've been able to do some things we just would not have been able to do if we had not made this change, " Gleason said. "Our lab equipment, our response time for patients that come in with cardiac arrest, there's a lot of things that if you don't keep up with technology you aren't going to improve the care you provide. "

The hospital has also begun the process of moving to all digital records. They are currently in the middle of proving the new system's "meaningful use" to Medicare, demonstrating the ease of transferring documents to a new facility or ordering prescriptions online.

Gleason hopes to bring even more innovation to the hospital, as insurance companies and government agencies catch up with the technology behind "telemedicine, " where patients could have a video conference call with their doctor, to get advice or treatment without having to go to their office.

"It has been very difficult over the years to be paid for telemedicine, " Gleason said. "I think that is changing. That needs to change more, so we can provide those services in our community.

"That's something that could really help our elderly population. "

The changes seem to be pretty popular with a lot of people.

"We have some wonderful providers in our community, " Gleason said. "We draw from a very long distance because of the quality of services. "

Other Montana hospitals also appear to be fans.

The Liberty Medical Center has spent the past few years as a part of the North Central Montana Healthcare Alliance, with nine other rural hospitals, to discuss and help implement plans for the future of Montana rural health care.

"We've been working on it for two years, " Gleason said. "It is something that is really needed in these communities, not only for survival, but for the care and services, for these areas. "

With all these things going for the hospital, Gleason said that recruitment is still difficult for a rural area.

"It's going to be hard to compete with Great Falls, and it's very hard for Great Falls to compete with Kalispell or Billings, " Gleason said. "The smaller the facility the harder it gets to recruit. "

Though, as he's found during the past few years, living in Chester does have great advantages, including cost of living and "school excellence" of the Chester/Joplin-Inverness public school system.

Even if finding doctors to move permanently to Liberty County is a challenge, they are doing pretty well now with visiting specialists from Havre, Great Falls and Kalispell.


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