MRHC Authority Board meeting -- many questions, few answers

Mar. 8—A group of area residents who attended a McAlester Regional Health Center Authority Trustee Board meeting had lots of questions regarding the McAlester Cancer Center.

They got few answers.

Many of those who jammed into a hospital administration conference room for a standing-room-only meeting Wednesday afternoon were there because of concerns about the McAlester Cancer Center on the MRHC Campus.

The OCSRI McAlester Cancer Center at 901 Strong Boulevard is currently operated by the physician-owned Oklahoma Cancer Specialists and Research Institute.

It's set to be moved out later this month after the hospital administration declined to renew the OCSRI lease earlier this year.

McAlester Regional Health Center maintains that the McAlester Cancer Center is not closing, but the hospital is embarking on a new partnership.

It's a result of "active discussions to bring high quality research driven cancer care to McAlester and the surrounding region," according to a MRHC statement.

"McAlester Regional Health Center and OU Health Stephenson Cancer Center are in active discussions to bring high quality research driven cancer care to McAlester and the surrounding region," the hospital statement said.

OCSRI McAlester Cancer Center Front Office Specialist Susan Old said Thursday the OCSRI McAlester Cancer Center's last day for treating patients is Friday, March 8, with plans to begin moving equipment out by Monday.

"We will be out of the building by March 29," she said.

Local and area residents, including current and formers patients, OCSRI employees and other concerned local residents previously attended two McAlester City Council meetings to voice their many concerns.

Several expressed dismay at the loss of treatment by OCSRI to cancer patients at the McAlester Cancer Center and the loss of jobs by many local and area OCSRI employees, who said they cannot commute or move to Tulsa to continue working.

McAlester Mayor John Browne told them during the Feb. 27 council meeting they were addressing the wrong body. Although MRHC is a public trust, the McAlester City Council has no control over the hospital, other than to appoint MRHC Authority Trustee Board members and to make sure the hospital does not incur a certain amount of debt without prior approval.

Browne told the citizens at the Feb. 27 city council meeting they should be addressing the MRHC Authority Board of Trustees — which is what they did during the Wednesday meeting at the McAlester hospital.

MRHC Authority Chairman Dr. Christopher Beene conducted the hospital trust authority meeting.

He said the MRHC authority Trustee Board is a governing board. That would leave operations of the facility up to MRHC Chief Executive Officer T. Shawn Howard and the hospital administration.

Those attending MRHC Trust Authority meeting Wednesday were initially told they would not be allowed to address the hospital board, because they had "no standing."

Nothing pertaining to the McAlester Cancer Center was on the March 6 MRHC Authority Board of Trustees meeting agenda, although two individuals told the News-Capital they had called the hospital days earlier and asked that the matter be placed on the agenda.

After being told discussion of the McAlester Cancer Center was not on the meeting agenda, several of those attending began asking questions related to the facility while they were standing with the other attendees.

Three McAlester city councilors were at the meeting, including Ward 1 Councilor Weldon Smith, Ward 3 Councilor Chris Stone and Ward 4 Councilor Randy Roden.

Roden, who has been critical of the decision not to renew the lease for the OSCRI asked to address MRHC CEO Howard about a family member's medical bill.

"Can I speak to you?" asked Roden.

"I can speak to you in my office," Howard said.

Cathy Thornton said she had asked to be on the meeting agenda.

"You don't have a right to be on the agenda," MRHC Trust Authority attorney Elizabeth Dalton told Thornton.

Thornton indicated those present had questions about what led to the changes at the McAlester Cancer Center.

"There's accountability," Thornton said of the decision.

"You say 'you can't be on the agenda,'" Thornton said. "That's not cutting it."

Also during the meeting, both Thornton and Howard acknowledged that Howard had met with Thornton in his office several weeks ago to hear her concerns.

Local resident Richard Bowden asked how many of the hospital board members voted to repeal the OCSRI McAlester Cancer Center contract.

He was told the hospital board doesn't decide such matters, which would mean it fell under hospital operations with Howard, the hospital's chief executive officer.

"One person decides? Holy smoke," said Thornton.

When adjourning the meeting came up, Thornton said "Just go ahead and adjourn. We'll be back."

OCSRI had been seeing an average of 30 radiation patients per day and from 75-100 chemotherapy patients per week, according to the OCSRI McAlester website. Patients are drawn from a 50-mile radius, with the majority of patients coming from referring physicians, the website states.

OCSRI describes itself as a "physician-owned oncology network of board-certified medical, gynecological and radiation oncologists."

McAlester Regional Health Care released the following statement in declaring that the Cancer Center is not closing:

"McAlester Regional Health Center and OU Health Stephenson Cancer Center are in active discussions to bring high quality research driven cancer care to McAlester and the surrounding region.

"McAlester Regional Health Center and OU Health have a proven track record of working closely together to advance health care services in the community at McAlester and are committed to delivering on the promise that an NCI-Designated Cancer Center can provide through a strong regional network partnership in McAlester," the statement continued.

"With OU Health's Stephenson Cancer Center partnership, MRHC remains focused on providing cancer care to our community. We are committed to expanding the services offered locally. Please stay tuned for upcoming announcements and dates," concluded the statement from MRHC.