The Somervell County Sheriff’s Department and ambulance crews have been busy lately with a rash of bad car accidents on State Highway 144 or U.S. Highway 67 every other week or so. Two resulted in fatalities and in several others, critically injured drivers or passengers had to be rushed by ambulance or by Air Evac helicopter to Glen Rose Medical Center.

It’s in those emergency situations when you really appreciate having a hospital in your back yard. Every member of my family except me (knock on wood) has used the ER for everything from a feral cat bite to a bloody tractor accident. Elective or preventive procedures also have been performed there. Otherwise, we’d have to go to Cleburne, Stephenville, Granbury or drive all the way to Fort Worth. It’s nice traveling just a few miles for medical care, especially when time is precious, and it comforting to know that it’s there.

Angie Robertson, a member of the county’s Hospital Authority Board, learned how much she and her family valued the hospital recently when her son came down with appendicitis. A surgeon wasn’t available in Glen Rose, so they had to get the emergency surgeon at an outside hospital. They would have much preferred staying close to home.

Robertson’s experience illustrates one of the reasons that Glen Rose Medical Center has been exploring potential partnerships — to be able to attract more physicians and to continue increasing the quality of health care and providing more services.

At a special planning meeting earlier this month, members of the medical center management and staff and the Somervell County Commissioners Court met with the consulting group they’ve hired to investigate options for the future. Standalone rural hospitals everywhere — not just in Glen Rose — are struggling these days in an insanely complex health care system that favors size. Insurance companies give the best deals to large health care providers, which also have more bargaining power with suppliers like pharmaceutical companies.

Non-profit hospitals such as Glen Rose’s also face the double whammy of trying to compete against the large players AND providing care for those in the community who can’t — or won’t — pay for it. One of the big reasons the medical center is losing money is because of bad debts — patients who are delinquent paying medical bills — and charity care. But when someone comes into the ER from a car wreck or some other accident with life-threatening injuries, can the hospital turn them away if they don’t have an insurance card? Of course not.

The best option under consideration for GRMC and the county is to partner with a large provider. That could take several forms — they could choose to affiliate, lease or sell the medical center, hire a partner to manage it or other arrangements. GRMC already has an affiliation with Baylor Health Care and could choose to make that a more formal and expanded relationship.

All present agreed that day that the community wanted and needed a hospital in Glen Rose for a range of reasons — to serve an aging population, to promote quality of life, to encourage economic development and for convenience.

Then Community Hospital Corp. consultants posed the questions: What do you want to gain from a partnership and what are the characteristics of the ideal partner? Everyone in the room contributed to the “wish list.”

“To access the benefit of tapping a new source for additional doctors and physicians to fill our voids,” Hospital Authority Board Chairman Larry Shaw said.

“Sustainability,” County Judge Walter Maynard said.

“Cost and economies,” said Sharon Boone.

Debra….. said “employee education” was important to her.

Board member Gary Whittle said, “Cost savings and managed care.”

“Operating efficiency,” said Ray Reynolds, chief financial offers.? Roberston said having a “bargaining position” with insurance companies and managed care clout were prime reasons.

Somervell County Commissioner Zach Cummings replied, “An organization with a good reputation.”

Mo Shelton, the medical center’s chief operating officer, added. “Branding.”

“A sense of security, recognition and commitment,” Commissioner Lloyd Wirt commented.

Board member Ernest Reinke suggested “accountability.”

County Commissioner Mike Ford also liked the bargaining power reason. “I’ve watched this board and hospital staff take exceptional steps to cut costs,” he said.

“Share the financial risks and gains,” board member Bob Lancaster said.

County Attorney Ron Hankins said having a “mutually beneficial relationship” was important. County Commissioner James Barnard agreed.

Dr. Julia Hutchison, chief of the medical staff, said that as a physician, she would like to be able to access sub-specialty doctors and services and use their electronic medical records.

Gary Marks, the medical center’s chief executive officer, said that a partner could “help us grow the operations and quality” of the health care provided.

Other benefits mentioned were helping to recruit new physicians, contributing to the long-term viability of the medical center and assisting with information technology. Robertson mentioned another subject on everyone’s minds — financial stability.

“Wouldn’t it be fun to have profits?’ she asked. Yes, indeed.

The board and commissioners didn’t make any decisions that day, but they indicated they were more interested in keeping the medical center in the non-profit realm that partnering with an investor-owned provider. After all, non-profit health care is part of Glen Rose’s tradition and investor-owned facilities have gotten a bad rap for reaping profits that then go back to the corporation and don’t necessarily stay in the community.

Having a profit goal is fine and, as Robertson pointed out, it would be great for taxpayers if the medical center can stem its losses and break even. But if the county can find a partner with at least some of the attributes that hospital board members and commissioners mentioned above, that could go a long way toward turning the red ink to black in the future.