A passion for health care and appreciation of the milder Cortez winter attracted Southwest Health System’s new CEO Jeanine Gentry.
Gentry was hired by Community Hospital Corp. this year to lead Southwest Memorial Hospital in Cortez. She sat down with The Journal Aug. 24 to provide an update on hospital operations and plans.
Gentry has decades of experience in health care. She most recently served as CEO for Steele Memorial Medical Center in Salmon, Idaho, from 2016 to 2021. She led all operations of the 18-bed, county-owned hospital, which was ranked as a top 20 critical access hospital for three consecutive years by the Chartis Group hospital rating group.
“My goal is to bring this hospital into the top 20 for rural critical care hospitals. We can do it,” she said. “I want to have the recognition of what a fine medical facility this is. We have a lot to offer that many small towns do not.”
The rating focuses on key pillars of quality care, service, financial health, growth and staff.
Southwest Memorial has overcome back-to-back challenges of a financial crisis in 2018 and the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.
“We are taking a deep breath and getting back to normal. We are in sound financial standing,” Gentry said. “The stress of the pandemic had a big impact on hospital staff.”
Current leadership team goals are improving patient access to care and recruiting doctors.
“A complaint we hear is people struggling to get timely appointments with doctors. If they wait too long, they go to another hospital,” Gentry said. “We want to make sure we add enough capacity to open up access. I pay close attention to patient complaints.”
Areas that need more access are cardiology, urology and oncology, she said. For example, a cardiologist is only available at Southwest two to three times per month, which is not enough for patient demand.
In May, voters approved a tax referendum for the hospital that removes a sunset provision on the district’s 0.04% sales tax in exchange for hospital district property tax mill levy by 25% to 0.7445 mills from 0.994 mills. The tax was set to expire in 2030.
The long-term tax revenue will help to secure operations and could finance upgrades, but Gentry is cautious about jumping into big projects.
“Construction would involve more debt, I’m allergic to debt right now,” she said. “We want to pay down the debt we already have.”
In 2018, the hospital completed a $32 million upgrade financed by bonds and the district’s sales tax. It has reduced its backlog maintenance costs to $5 million, down from $10 million in 2018, Gentry said.
The Southwest Health System and Montezuma County Hospital District boards are developing a five-year strategic plan, rather than only relying on year-to-year plans, which have been the norm.
“We all know there are parts of the building that are brand new and look very nice. Then there are other parts of the building that need upgrades, so we have to have a plan to fix aging infrastructure,” Gentry said.
Both boards are developing lists of priorities for the hospital. Projects agreed upon by the boards will be considered for implementation, she said.
A third-party consultant was hired to interview hospital staff on the needs of the facility to provide a neutral summary of projects.
In 2018, a financial crisis nearly led to the hospital being closed. Bonding covenants, including days cash-on-hand, were out of compliance, and a forbearance agreement by lenders detailed required corrective actions. Forty staff were laid off.
New leadership was hired implement changes to reverse the downfall, which was ultimately successful.
A key indicator of financial health is days of cash on hand. SHS is in compliance at the minimum 80 days, but Gentry wants to see it go higher. In 2020 and 2021, SHS broke even and showed small profits, she said.
Lack of transparency about the financial health of the hospital led up to the financial crisis in 2018, officials said.
Gentry said the hospital now has “much stricter internal accounting procedures.”
A new auditing firm, Blue & Co., was brought in to oversee finances, she said.
“They are extremely picky. For 2020 and 2021, we earned a clean audit,” Gentry said. “There were no warnings or problems. I feel very confident the accounting processes have been cleaned up.”
In addition to the yearly audits, the hospital’s management company, CHC, also has oversight over the finances.
“We meet with them every month and go over all the reports. They grill us,” Gentry said.
Regarding leadership styles, Gentry said she is changing the staff culture from “authoritarian to participative.”
Every week there is an employee forum, and staff is encouraged to ask senior leadership any question without fear of retribution.
“Everyone who works here is a key stakeholder in our success, and they deserve to know what is going on,” she said. “I hope our caregivers feel like there are not secrets anymore.”
The hospital has 450 employees.
Helping people and saving lives is Gentry’s motivation in leading hospitals.
“I am a very caring person, and I get the chance to show love to patients and people that work here,” she said. “Love is not a principal taught in business school, but it is something people are hungry for.”
On a personal note, Gentry said she hit the fertility jackpot and had triplets, two boys and a girl. They recently all turned 21, and she attended their birthday party in the Northwest.
She added that a benefit of landing in the Four Corners is it is near family in Arizona, and snow shoveling duties are light compared with the Northwest.
“I am over trying to shovel a lot of snow,” she said.
The Southwest Health System Board is looking to fill three vacancies. Current board members are Chairperson Dan Valverde, Vice Chairperson Susan Hodgdon, Secretary/Treasurer Shirley Jones and Director Sean Killoy. The Southwest Health System board usually convenes on the fourth Wednesday of each month at 5 p.m. in the Kiva room at the hospital entrance. The next meeting is Sept. 28.
The board members for the Montezuma County Hospital District are Chairperson Dean Matthews, Vice Chairperson Bill Thompson, Secretary/Treasurer Rob Dobry, Fred DeWitt and Gala Pock. Meetings are held on the second Wednesday of the month at 6 p.m. at the EMS Training Center on the north side of the hospital campus. The next meeting is Sept. 14 at 6 p.m.
For more information, visit the SHS website a swhealth.org.