The Lehigh Regional Medical Center isn't just the place for residents to go if they get sick. It serves a very important role in the health care of many people to the east, many of them indigent.
Lehigh is the only area in the county that is not under the immediate Lee Health banner whose closest facility is the city line with Fort Myers.
Gary Bell, CEO of Lehigh Regional Medical Center, will be more than happy to tell you that the 106,000 people it serves in Lehigh Acres is the tip of the iceberg. It is the lifeblood of those who live in Hendry, Glades and easternmost Collier counties.
Lehigh Regional Medical Center serves 106,000 people in Lehigh Acres.
There are no hospitals to the east. The nearest hospitals are in Clewiston, a critical access hospital, Labelle, then to Palm Beach.
"We get a lot of patients that come in from the east. We're the only emergency room to all those people," Bell said.
It was a busy year for LRMC, which was purchased by Prime Healthcare in February 2016 from Community Health Services, the latest in a line of owners.
Bell said from the moment Prime took over, it put its imprint on the company, investing more than $9 million in Lehigh with the latest technology to make the hospital run more efficiently.
"We have the latest EPIC electronic medical records in the country, the latest payroll processing system, the latest inventory management and dispensing systems," Bell said. "A great deal of money and education have gone in to use these systems."
On the medical front, they are installing a new fluoroscopy machine, a $600,000 investment, and many checks have been written to update the equipment to care for 106,000 people, Bell said.
Still with all the techy improvements, Bell said it's about the people. LRMC has recruited two general surgeons, a cardiologist and starting work on a multi-disciplinary intensive care unit, headed by outstanding critical care physicians.
"I think we will have the best ICU of any hospital around. That's very important because we see more than 36,000 emergency room patients a year," Bell said. "People are excited, the morale is great, we're doing great things and working together."
As with many hospitals, Bell said they are always looking for talented general doctors, nurses and other positions where employees can use their skills.
Bell said there is a shortage of nurses, but while the schools are graduating more of them, they still have to learn, and will continue to learn the rest of their lives with the help of seasoned veterans.
Perhaps the biggest difference, the benefit of being a small hospital, is that there is one flat layer of management, and not several layers seen at major medical centers. This allows people like Bell better access to the community.
LRMC is also the biggest taxpayer, largest employer, and greatest supporter of community organizations in Lehigh, Bell said.
In the future, Bell said he wants to eliminate every reason for an ambulance not to be able to stop at Lehigh Regional.
"Some patients will never be brought here. We don't do head trauma. But what we do, we do extremely well. Those people who came through the emergency room, I think they give us good grades," Bell said. "Our star rating is equal to everyone else's. This is a good hospital and we would love to have people learn about it."
While LRMC is the major player in Lehigh, others have come in for their share of the pie, including Family Health Centers, several nursing facilities, including Hope Hospice and Lehigh Rehab, as well as independent physicians.
Urgent care centers such as Urgent and Convenient Care Center and MedExpress have come into town in recent years, and have been saviors to the LRMS and those in need of care. None existed five years ago; there are now several.
As Lehigh Regional serves many to the east, many of those people has little or no insurance, even with Obamacare. This has posed a problem for any non-profit which has tried to help the indigent. While the clinics have helped those with Affordable Health Car act "marketplace" coverage, a void still exists.
Rick Anglickis once was vice president of a company called Lee County Volunteers in Medicine, which was to service those who were uninsured or had little insurance and act as a buffer between the patients and hospital. Such a program exists in Port Charlotte and has been successful.
"It doesn't exist because with the onslaught of Obamacare it was assumed all these people would be serviced. That turned out to be not true," Anglickis said. "The main players extended themselves too far too fast. We couldn't supply the manpower."
Anglickis said it's the indigent care LRMC provides that has resulted in the ownership changes and their inability to "unlock the key to a billion dollars."
"When you give away hundreds of thousands of dollars in care, someone else has to pay for it," Anglickis said. "It's been a constant problem with the hospital."
Organizations such as Lehigh Community Services, a local non-profit, does its part to help those in need with free flu shots once a month, among the numerous other things they do.
"Because we have the reputation as a non-profit service agency, this is where people will go, if they know about it. If they don't know, they'll find 211 at the United Way or ask the community," said Ray Nicely, executive director.
Anglickis said he expects to see more such clinics pop up as the area continues to grow. In previous years, he assembled what were single-family lots in Lee Boulevard to sell to investors who would build those clinics.