Hardin County will have a hospital for the first time in more than 20 years after Altus Emergency Centers received certification for its freestanding emergency room in Lumberton to operate as a hospital.
The company will celebrate the renaming of the Altus Lumberton Hospital today with a ribbon-cutting ceremony, marking the transition from solely offering emergency care to accepting patients in its four-bed inpatient center.
The facility on LHS Drive opened in December 2013 with the intent of one day operating as a hospital. Administration began the process of gaining hospital licensing in summer 2019 and reached final approval just before the new year.
President Kevin Herrington said the design and additional space allotted in the building for growth made the transition as painless as could be expected while it handled the proper inspections.
“It was more about timing than anything else,” Herrington said. “When we first opened, we didn’t want to be viewed as a competitor to the other hospitals in the area and our physicians didn’t think it was the right time to transition. It was during (Tropical Storm) Harvey, when we were the only facility open and were seeing all different kinds of patients, that we knew we needed to start with a plan to become a full-service hospital.”
The hospital won’t be able to offer any kind of surgical procedures or specialty treatment, but Herrington said at least 10,000 square feet of additional space on the second floor could be converted into new suites if needed. Additional acreage behind the hospital could be used for future growth.
Along with the four inpatient rooms, the facility has a suite of imaging technologies and diagnostic services.
Herrington said the company hired at least 10 new employees to help staff the new inpatient services. At least one physician and one nurse practitioner will be on duty at all times. The hospital will have one nurse to four patients, a slightly lower ratio than most Texas hospitals.
The next step for the hospital will be gaining certification from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to accept Medicare patients and be reimbursed for care. Herrington said the process has already started, but certification can take some time.
Dr. Ikechukwu Ilochonwu, chief of staff for the Altus Lumberton Hospital, said the addition of inpatient services means the caregivers who have gotten to know local patients over the years as emergency care providers now have more time to handle situations before patients go home or are transferred out.
“Before, in the ER, we could only legally observe them for a couple of hours before transferring them or releasing them,” Ilochonwu said. “Now, we won’t have to do that. They can be taken care of by our providers and we can provide chronic care for two or four days to help them get better and send them home.”
Ilochonwu said Altus physicians often see patients with chronic illnesses and have become experienced with handling complications with diabetes and other common diseases. As insurance companies and care practices move to reducing recovery time in hospitals, he said Altus can now more easily play a part in helping patients improve recovery rates.
“A lot of the patients that normally go through the ER don’t want to go to the hospital. They see it as taking too much time and don’t want to be away from home,” Ilochonwu said. “We are now bringing them care in Lumberton, so there isn’t that inconvenience on their families.”
In 2017, Altus’ Lumberton facility and other emergency rooms it owned were listed for sale through a real estate firm. Herrington confirmed at the time that the company was trying to sell the locations to other owners but retain their operations through leasing agreements to cut overhead.
The hospital property is still held by Altus Lumberton Realty and had an appraised value of $6.9 million in 2019, according to the Hardin County Appraisal District.
Altus currently operates freestanding emergency centers in Lake Jackson, Baytown and Waxahachie.
Despite the new addition in Lumberton, the state’s rural areas have actually been shedding hospitals in the last decade.
Since 2010, 113 rural hospitals have closed across the country, almost a quarter of them in Texas.
About 20% of the nation’s rural hospitals, including 12 in Texas, are considered at high risk for closing, according to data from Navigant Consulting.
Despite several attempts from county officials and individuals cities to attract medical institutions to Hardin County, it was left without a hospital when Silsbee Doctors Hospital closed its doors in 1999 after more than 30 years in operation.