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2020 Reflections: Local health-care industry sees 'new path forward' in new year

by KIANNA GARDNER
Daily Inter Lake | December 31, 2020 12:00 AM

For Flathead County’s health-care industry and those on its frontlines, 2020 has been one for the books, filled not only with stretches fatigue and frustration but also with moments of resilience, collaboration and growth.

When the novel coronavirus was first detected in Montana about three months into the year, Kalispell Regional Healthcare braced for the worst. Fearing an uncontrollable wave of COVID-19 patients and a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), the hospital system canceled elective services in late March, which included everything from cosmetic surgeries to routine cancer screenings.

At the time, hospital CEO Craig Lambrecht estimated in a letter to employees that Kalispell Regional would lose more than $16 million per month as its greatest revenue source was cut off. He relayed to employees that “cost-cutting efforts have been underway, but unfortunately those efforts alone cannot remedy the significance of these losses at a time when we must safeguard a clinical stabilization program.”

So, in an effort to further balance those losses, the valley’s largest employer furloughed more than 600 staff members and cut physician and executive director salaries. But those adjustments would only linger for about two months until Flathead County experienced a stretch of fewer new COVID-19 cases — a sign that the area’s “COVID curve” was flattening.

Elective procedures resumed and furloughed employees returned to work. By June, hospital officials said the entire system was humming along, operating nearly at pre-pandemic levels.

AROUND THAT time, Kalispell Regional also took a big step forward in expanding its network after the Toole County commissioners approved a proposal from hospital executives to purchase the Marias Medical Center and other Shelby entities from the county. Although hospital officials mentioned they had been pursuing the acquisition since 2019, the timing came as a surprise to some, given financial and operational uncertainties surrounding COVID-19.

In an email last week, Lambrecht said the initiatives in Toole County were briefly put on pause at the start of the pandemic, but officials eventually recognized they “can’t continue to put everything on hold indefinitely because of COVID.”

“The pandemic has brought many teams in this organization together in ways we’ve never done before, working together to solve unprecedented problems. In many ways, now is the best time for these initiatives to build on that momentum of partnership and unity that has brought us through this past year,” Lambrecht said.

He also noted that although the hospital’s relationships with Marias and other providers in the region predated the pandemic, the event has strengthened those connections as hospitals and clinics small and large placed competing interests aside to combat the virus together.

THE ACQUISITIONS also spurred a major rebrand for Kalispell Regional.

According to a recent announcement, the system will switch to Logan Health at the start of the year, a name derived from Glacier National Park’s iconic Logan Pass. Lambrecht explained the rebrand will unify the organizations and workforces, eliminate patient confusion and will serve as a demonstration of the hospital’s commitment to “delivering excellent care and an outstanding patient experience.”

Hospital officials have not divulged how much a system-wide rebrand will cost, but Lambrecht said many of the expenses associated with the changes would have been incurred whether officials decided to pursue a rebrand or not. Examples include updating signage to improve hospital navigability and standardizing patient materials — tasks that can be expensive and will now unfold along with other rebranding tasks.

“Even if we spend $1 million over the next year on new signage and other hard costs, those are investments that will depreciate over time and are critical to our patients’ experiences on our campus,” Lambrecht said. “For perspective, we spend more than $1.5 million every day, just to care for our patients and operate our facilities. We invested nearly $12 million this past year in our workforce through HR [human resources] systems, wage adjustments and other benefits. In comparison, the costs associated with transitioning to a new brand is a minimal investment that will make a long-term significant impact.”

THE SHELBY acquisitions and subsequent rebrand have raised questions as to what might be in store for health care in Northwest Montana as Logan Health positions itself as one of the largest providers in the state. Some fear prices for health-care services may increase significantly should Logan Health continue its current rate of expansion.

When asked how Logan Health will ensure services across its network remain as affordable as possible, hospital officials did not provide a direct answer. However, Lambrecht again pointed to the hospital’s underlying reasons for pursuing the rebrand, which is expected to happen gradually over the next 12 to 18 months.

“Throughout our 110-year history, Kalispell Regional Healthcare has continued to evolve in order to meet the needs of our communities. We have grown to offer a wide variety of services and specialties across multiple locations and communities. Our growth has now brought us to a pivotal moment,” Lambrecht said. “As we continue to position ourselves to meet the needs of the future, our previous way of organizing our system no longer works.”

He added that, aside from unifying the health-care entities, the rebrand also will allow the system to “provide health-care with high-quality and affordability.”

PUSHES TO expand and rebrand came to fruition during the second half of 2020 — a stretch when Flathead County’s coronavirus cases fluctuated greatly, occasionally sending the hospital and its staff and resources into overdrive.

While there were certainly moments in which COVID-19-related hospitalizations were manageable, there were other times — during early fall in particular — when designated coronavirus units in the hospital were operating at or above capacity. And as patients continued to fill what hospital beds were available, fatigue set in for doctors and nurses who would often work overtime to assist with patient loads.

It wasn’t until mid-November that cases and associated hospitalizations began to ease. Flathead County has yet to experience the sharp influx in COVID-19 cases that experts predicted the area would see heading into the winter season.

The area has actually experienced a gradual decline in new cases over the last five weeks, though experts are quick to remind the public that the situation can change quickly and that Flathead County isn’t out of the weeds yet.

In early December, three Kalispell Regional physicians said when it comes to tackling COVID-19, endurance among hospital staff and the community is going to be one of the biggest challenges moving into 2021.

WHILE THE doctors said 2020 has indeed been a trying year, it has also been one marked by great accomplishments.

The entire hospital switched to a service line system at the start of the pandemic, which has better streamlined communication throughout different departments. Telehealth emerged as a major asset for thousands of patients across rural Montana. The hospital eventually acquired the means to perform in-house testing for COVID-19, greatly adding to its ability to fight outbreaks and monitor staff. Screening and testing sites were erected throughout the community, and clinics and hospitals that would normally compete with one another came together for a common cause.

And in early December, Flathead County received its initial shipments of the long-awaited COVID-19 vaccine. Heading into the new year, at least 1,300 of the valley’s health-care workers have been immunized with the first dose of a two-dose vaccine, either the one created by Pfizer and BioNTech or the one from Moderna. More vaccines are anticipated in the coming months, though specific shipments and deadlines have not been announced.

Looking ahead, Lambrecht said the new year will be a year of healing for the community, the health and wellbeing of which has been impacted by the virus in more ways than one. He said it will also be one of “continued transformation,” characterized by unity among organizations and workforces.

“While 2020 has had its share of challenges, we can’t overlook our many accomplishments that signaled our new path forward,” Lambrecht said. “I look forward to the new milestones ahead of us that 2021 holds for our health-care organization, our new Logan Health family and the communities we serve.”

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4407 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com