Even as revelers were welcoming in the new year in the wee hours of Friday morning, a quiet yet important change was taking place.
Starting more than a year ago with the announcement by Covenant Health of plans to build a new hospital in Hobbs, plans finally came to fruition as Lea Regional Medical Center officially changed owners to the Lubbock, Texas-based healthcare provider.
“One of the reasons Covenant was interested (in Hobbs and southeast New Mexico) in the first place was to provide care close to home,” said Dan Springer, CEO of the former Lea Regional. Springer will continue in the top management position at the new facility, named Covenant Health Hobbs Hospital.
“A large number of people seen at Covenant (Medical Center) in Lubbock are from southeast New Mexico,” Springer told the News-Sun on Thursday. “When people receive health care, there’s a choice of where to get it. We want people to be confident they can receive quality care” in Hobbs.
Covenant Health first made its intentions to build a hospital in Hobbs known in August 2019, according to previous reports in the News-Sun. After a year of negotiations, Covenant officials signed a letter of intent in August 2020 to purchase the existing Lea Regional Medical Center facility while proceeding with plans to build a new facility southeast of the Lea County Event Center, across Lovington Highway at Millen Drive.
“We had already explored the possibility of building a hospital here,” said Bruce White, rural regional administrator for Covenant Health. “When the opportunity came along to go ahead and purchase Lea Regional, it made sense to step into that and start those conversations.”
The intervening five months were spent on the logistics of changing ownership of the local medical center, Springer and White said. Everything from changing contracts with insurance companies, vendors and suppliers to electronic medical records had to be brought in line with Covenant.
Not everything that needed to be done to make the switch official was monumental in nature, though. Some of the changes may seem minor while still being important, White said.
“Today (Thursday) all the patient’s wrist bands say Lea Regional,” he said. “We have to change those wrist bands to say Covenant Health.
“Every health system has a certain way to do things,” White said. “With electronic medical records — I’ll give an example: A system can have multiple hospitals with each on separate medical records systems. All of that takes time to transition.”
But hospitals are more than records and files and wrist bands, Springer and White said. At the bottom line, they’re about people. And making sure the former Lea Regional Medical Center staff were kept informed of the ongoing changes since they were first announced last August has been one of the most important jobs of the transition team, they said.
“From Covenant’s perspective, our primary goal has been to make sure the employee base is taken care of,” White said. “We wanted to do it in a way that was done with dignity and an end in mind so we didn’t mess up any of the processes.”
Springer agreed: “There’s almost been a consistent over-communication from Covenant. The day after the acquisition was announced, Covenant teams were on site and all employees had an opportunity to meet with them and share their concerns.
“Once the (Jan. 1, 2021, date for the changeover) was set, we never moved it,” he said. “That indicates how well it went.”
Surprisingly, the adimistrators said, the one thing that could have been expected to make the process more difficult — the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic — really didn’t affect it at all. While the pandemic has forced major alterations to the way hospitals across the country and around the world provide care to patients — from longer hours to more stringent cleaning regiments — even getting the required licensing and paperwork from the New Mexico Department of Health presented few problems, Springer said.
“If there was something along the way — there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work, but we always had a guiding hand from someone really smart on the two sides,” he said. “It went pretty smoothly.”
The hospital that would become Lea Regional Medical Center was built in the mid-1970s, Springer said. Until the changeover, it was owned by Community Health Systems, Inc., based in Tennessee.
Covenant Health is owned by St. Joseph Health, based in Washington state. The Covenant group was founded in 1998 with the merger of two Lubbock hospitals, St. Mary of the Plains Hospital and Lubbock Methodist Hospital System.
White said plans for building a new hospital in Hobbs are proceeding, but have been pushed back possibly as much as a year by the COVID-19 pandemic. The target date for opening the new Covenant Health Hobbs Hospital facility is now September 2022, he said.
And there won’t be any major changes to the current Covenant Health Hobbs Hospital right away, White said. But changes are in the works.
“I think, over time, somebody who was here a year ago and who comes back after a year will be able to say, ‘Hey, there’s something different here,’” White said.