The way Kristine “Kris” Drummond sees it, the looming closure of St. Thomas Hospital’s emergency department won’t mean less medical care for the surrounding community.
When the ER space converts to a satellite office of AxessPointe Community Health Center later this year, Akron’s North Hill neighborhood will get better, more affordable access to primary care and preventive services, said Drummond, chief executive of the sliding-scale medical practice.
“We felt like it was an idea to provide a service in an area where it’s greatly needed,” Drummond said Wednesday. “We’ll be able to improve the outcomes of the patients because now that they’ll have a family-care model instead of episodic care.”
Summa announced Tuesday that the St. Thomas Hospital emergency department, off North Main Street and north of the All-America Bridge, will permanently close at midnight June 1. After that time, patients needing emergency care will be sent to Summa’s Akron City Hospital, located off East Market Street, less than two miles away.
The changes are part of a sweeping system overhaul, which also includes shuttering all inpatient units at Wadsworth-Rittman Hospital later this year.
Starting June 1, Summa will run a primary-care clinic in the former St. Thomas ER while AxessPointe awaits approval from the federal government to open a satellite location there. Drummond said she expects the plans to be approved by the fall.
Dr. Tom Malone, chief operating officer for Summa’s care delivery system, said many of the patients seeking care at St. Thomas’ emergency department have less serious problems that could be better handled by a primary-care practice.
“Most of the patients in the community are seeking primary care,” Malone said. “Because there isn’t access in the community, they were using the emergency department, which is much higher cost.”
But not everyone supports the impending ER closure.
Shawna DiLauro, 38, of Springfield Township, and her boyfriend, Mike Asher, 44, have used the St. Thomas ER on several occasions in the past couple years.
“I prefer them over Akron City,” said DiLauro outside the hospital Wednesday morning while on her way to a non-emergency appointment. “You’re in and out quicker.”
Asher said he has gone to the St. Thomas ER for services relating to his post-traumatic stress disorder. Asher, a U.S. Army veteran who served in the Persian Gulf War, was subsequently admitted to the St. Thomas psychiatric unit for a few days.
Summa is opening a dedicated behavioral health unit within the City Hospital ER, Malone said. Patients requiring hospitalization in a psychiatric unit will be transferred to St. Thomas.
Evie Anderson, 36, who lives in North Hill, almost in view of the hospital, said the St. Thomas ER closing is “a loss for this area if you always have to go all the way downtown to grab the services.”
For those in North Hill, “this ER [at St. Thomas] is really easy to access,” she said.
She noted that suburban areas, such as Green, are increasingly the target of hospitals building ERs.
“Out in Green there’s two right next to each other,” she said, referring to the Summa and Akron General ERs both on Massillon Road.
Dr. Elina Shakya of Summa Physicians Inc. at the health system’s Center for Health Equity at the Village at New Seasons, on South Hawkins Avenue on the city’s west side, will oversee the new primary-care practice when the St. Thomas ER closes.
AxessPointe then will lease Shakya’s services and the space from Summa, Malone said.
Summa also has agreed to renovate the former ER for AxessPointe as part of the health system’s in-kind contributions to attract the practice, Malone said. The exact cost of the renovations hasn’t been determined.
Shakya speaks Nepalese, the language spoken by many of the refugees from Bhutan who have settled near St. Thomas in the North Akron area. Many do not have cars and will be able to walk or will have a shorter bus ride to see Shakya at St. Thomas.
“This will be more accessible to [the Bhutanese],” Shakya said. The move, she said, will make it easier for “us to connect them with services we know about ... Hopefully I will be able to get more patients in who need help and be more helpful to the ones I see.”
About 80 percent of Shakya’s patients are Bhutanese, and 5 to 10 percent are other refugees.
Shakya moved to the United States in 2006 to complete her medical residency in internal medicine at a satellite facility of the Cleveland Clinic.
AxessPointe plans to work with the refugee populations in the area to ease cultural as well as language barriers, Drummond said.
The refugees “have problems that they are unable to express because of the language barrier [with those who do not speak Nepalese],” Shakya said. “So many times they can not express the exact” issue.
The move is welcomed by the International Institute of Akron, which has resettled refugees for years. Many of the agency’s current clients are the area’s Bhutanese refugees. They lived in refugee camps in Nepal, in Southeast Asia, and speak Nepalese.
“The majority of our [Bhutanese] clients are patients of Dr. Shakya,” said Susan Wuscher, interim director of resettlement for the institute, which is on Tallmadge Avenue, blocks from the hospital.
Most clients already are going to Akron City Hospital for emergency services, Wuscher said.
Wuscher estimates 1,000 or more Bhutanese refugees have settled in the Akron area in the past five or six years.
AxessPointe had been talking with Summa officials since 2010 about the possibility of opening a satellite location at St. Thomas, Drummond said.
More than 50 percent of the residents in the 44310 ZIP code where St. Thomas is located have incomes of less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level — a target patient population for AxessPointe, Drummond said.
AxessPointe is a federally qualified health center, which allows the practice to receive higher Medicaid payments to help make up for care provided to uninsured patients. The health center has locations on Arlington Street and in Barberton and Kent.
The practice charges sliding-scale fees, based on income. Patients also have access to lower-cost prescription medications.
Drummond said she expects the St. Thomas location to serve about 4,000 patients during its first year.
Cheryl Powell can be reached at 330-996-3902 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Powell on Twitter at twitter.com/CherylPowellABJ.