OSAGE COUNTY, Okla. — The few employees left at one Oklahoma hospital have been working months without a paycheck, while nearly 50 others have had to leave and are still waiting for the money they earned.
The trouble started last year when paychecks started arriving late. Then, they stopped coming altogether.
"We never got an explanation other than 'Sorry, you're not getting paid,'" employee Donna Renfro said.
At the end of 2018, the 15-bed hospital was fully staffed with about 60 employees. Now, it's almost abandoned.
"People had to support their families," Renfro said. "There have been seven of us running this hospital the last two weeks. That’s three RNs, one LP, and three aids."
EmpowerHMS, a Florida company running the hospital and owned by Jorge Perez, has filed for bankruptcy. It's put four rural Oklahoma hospitals on the brink of flatlining, including Fairfax Community Hospital, Prague Municipal Hospital, Drumright Regional Hospital, and Haskell County Community Hospital.
The city of Fairfax tried to take back control of the hospital and was granted receivership by an Osage County judge. Attorneys for the city then tried to file for bankruptcy on behalf of the hospital so it could move forward independently.
But in April, Perez's attorneys filed an appeal for the hospital to be brought back under his company's ownership. A trustee in North Carolina has been put in charge and plans to put the hospital in the hands of a Shawnee management company, Cohesive Healthcare Management & Consulting. A hearing scheduled for Thursday in North Carolina court may finalize that move.
Cohesive wasn't the first choice for the employees or the city.
"We don’t want to see somebody come in and tear our hospital apart," Renfro said.
In the meantime, with few supplies, and fewer staff, those left can only handle minor issues.
"If you come in with something serious, we will ship you out, helicopter, EMS," Renfro said.
Patients are rushed to the closest hospitals — about 30 miles away — in Pawhuska, Stillwater and Ponca City.
The future of Fairfax Community Hospital, its workers and the community are all hanging in limbo.
Fairfax vice mayor Charlie Cartwright, said he found out a judge ordered two paychecks be paid to the unpaid employees. However, an attorney with Christensen Law Group representing the city said she hasn't seen any ruling on a motion that would confirm this news.
"It's not even about the money anymore," Renfro said. "It's about the people who we care for. They depend on us."