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PowerSouth CEO explains why companies are leaving BCA

Bill Britt

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PowerSouth President and CEO Gary L. Smith may have made the most transparent case for why the state’s marquee corporations are in a steady exodus from the Business Council of Alabama.

“Our problem with BCA is simply Billy Canary and his leadership,” wrote Smith in the company’s withdrawal letter to BCA Chairman Perry Hand. “Billy has been effective in the past, but in our opinion, Billy is now a severe liability and must be replaced for BCA to again be effective.”

In April, Alabama Political Reporter broke the news that seven of the state’s leading companies were parting ways with BCA if Canary was not replaced by June.

Billy Canary out at BCA, sort of 

After APR‘s story broke that the BCA Executive Committee had agreed to replace Canary, it was Hand who took to an internet newsletter to claim our story was false. However, Smith’s letter obtained by APR proves Hand lied. “You indicated the BCA Executive Committee agrees a leadership change is needed, but we have serious disagreements about the timing of the replacement,” wrote Smith.

In fact, the Executive Committee agreed it was time for Canary to go, but Hand and a few Canary loyalists invented a reason to keep Canary around until 2019. As Smith points out, not only is Canary staying in place, he is also included in selecting his replacement.

Smith states, “Billy’s continuing involvement in the search for his replacement,” as well as, “his involvement in the leadership transition,” is a severe problem.

Smith further writes, “We have no interest in participating in or supporting an organization that Billy heads, influence through his choice of successor, or can manipulate through a transitional plan. It is simply time to completely sever the relationship before further damage is done to the organization.”

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To date, Alabama Power Company, PowerSouth, Regions Bank, Blue Cross Blue Shield and BCA legal counsel Boots Gale have fled BCA due to Canary’s failed leadership and Hand’s obstinate refusal to see the wisdom of his immediate replacement.

 

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Health

Public Easter week services are canceled

Brandon Moseley

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Most Churches in Alabama will not hold public Easter week services in compliance with the guidance from the Center of Disease Control and Prevention in order to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

Easter week is the holiest week in the Christian Church’s calendar and is usually marked with overflow crowds at Easter services in Churches across the state. The COVID-19 global pandemic, which has killed 83,090 people as of press time however has halted most gatherings of over ten, including most public worship services.

Bishop Robert J. Baker, S.T.D., the Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama, has extended the suspension of public worship till Saturday, April 18, 2020.

“It is with sadness that I write to you today to say that after consulting with our priests, public authorities, and health experts, I judge it necessary to extend the suspension of public worship, that I first issued on March 17,2020,” Bishop Baker wrote. “The suspension will now continue through the day before Divine Mercy Sunday – April 18, 2020.”

Archbishop Thomas J. Rodi of the Mobile Archdiocese issued similar orders on March 30.

“The suspension of public worship services and most church activities in the Catholic churches of the Archdiocese of Mobile is extended through April 18, 2020,” Rodi wrote. “The original suspension was announced on March 17.”

“This means that public Easter services will not be celebrated in our Catholic churches,” Archbishop Rodi explained. “This is a most painful decision. Not only is Easter a time of celebration, even more importantly, the Resurrection of Our Lord is at the core of our Christian faith. However, this action is taken in the interest of the common good of our communities and is in accord with the advice of civil authorities.”

The Archdiocese of Mobile consists of the Catholic churches and ministries in the 28 counties of the southern half of Alabama. The Diocese of Birmingham consists of the of the Catholic Churches and ministries in the northern 39 counties.

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Many Churches are still streaming services to their congregations. The Alabama based Eternal World Television Network (EWTN) will be streaming services online.

The Archdiocese of Mobile will also be streaming services from the Cathedral-Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. Those services are closed to the public.

http://mobarch.org/

Roman Catholics, as well as many other Christian Churches, celebrate the Last Supper of Jesus Christ with a service on the Thursday night before Easter. On the Friday before Easter there is a Good Friday service. On the Saturday nightery before Easter there is an Easter vigil service. On Sunday there is the traditional Easter Services that normally attract both the regular Churchgoers as well as many people who attend just a couple of services a year.

According to Christian scripture, Jesus of Nazareth was arrested by local Jewish authorities on a Thursday in 30 to 33 A.D. He was put on trial that night by the Jewish Sanhedrin, who turned him over to the Roman authorities who were then occupying Judea. The Roman Governor Pontius Pilate ordered Jesus executed the next day. Crucifixion was the execution method of choice for the Romans. Jesus died on the cross, likely from heart failure after an ordeal that included beatings and having to carry his cross through the streets of Jerusalem to the hill overlooking the city. According to the Gospel accounts, Jesus was buried in a tomb; but rose from the dead the following Sunday. He then met with his remaining disciples for gatherings a few weeks before ascending to heaven. Those devoted followers began preaching Jesus’s message and founding Churches the world over. Subsequent Christian scholars later determined that Jesus was both man and God made flesh. Muslims reject the divinity of Jesus; but acknowledge that he was a prophet. Both Christians and Muslims believe that Jesus will come again.

Most Churches, regardless of denomination, have similarly moved their Easter week services online.

Governor Kay Ivey’s statewide stay at home order did exempt worship services and some Churches have made the decision to meet for public worship services in spite of the growing COVID-19 risk.

The COVID-19 global pandemic has infected 1,444,821 persons around the world and killed 83,103. 47,980 people are in critical or serious condition in hospitals around the world. In the United States, 12,850 people have died from COVID-19 as of press time.

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Education

Alabama farmers are providing students with virtual field trips

Brandon Moseley

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The COVID-19 global pandemic and forced economic shutdown have left most of Alabama’s school children at home; being educated by their parents, with some resources being sent by the school systems. Most parents are struggling to find educational resources to keep their children both learning and engaged. Alabama farmers are coming to the aid of parents by hosting virtual field trips every Friday through May 22.

The Alabama farmers are hosting the virtual field trips through Facebook Live on the Alabama Farmers Federation Facebook page every Friday at 10:00 a.m.

The first of these programs was held on Friday, April 3rd and addressed peanuts.

Roughly half of the peanuts grown in the United States are grown within a 100-mile radius of Dothan.

The farmers explained how peanuts grow, the life cycle of the peanut plants, and how farmers use nature, hard work, and science to turn the legumes into the common household peanut derived food stuff that we all enjoy.

During future presentations will explain when do Alabama farmers grow different fruits and vegetables? What’s the difference between a cow, a bull and a calf? How do farmers get honey from bees? How do farmers raise catfish? And many more interesting topics.

The Alabama farmers will answer all those questions and much more during the Virtual Field Trips offered through Facebook Live on the Alabama Farmers Federation Facebook page every Friday at 10 a.m. through May 22.

“Parents and their children are making huge adjustments as their homes become classrooms, and we want to help by offering entertaining and educational field trips from some of our farmers,” said Alabama Farmers Federation Communications Department director Jeff Helms. “While these videos will target third through fifth graders, people of all ages will learn more about how farmers grow food, fiber and timber.”

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“For all of the parents who are helping teach kids from home, this virtual field trip will be coming up,” said Congressman Robert Aderholt (R-Haleyville on social media. “Thank you to all the teachers and parents who have had to adapt to distance learning during these Stay at Home days.”

The farmers are gearing up for their next Virtual Field Trip on April 10. Friday’s topic will be fruits and vegetables.

The list of currently scheduled topics, subject to change, include:

  • April 3 – Peanuts and other row crops.
  • April 10 – Fruits and vegetables.
  • April 17– Beef cattle.
  • April 24 – Honeybees.
  • May 1 – Catfish.
  • May 8 – Greenhouse and nursery products.
  • May 15 – Forestry.
  • May 22 – Cotton and other row crops.

To receive Facebook notifications about the Virtual Field Trips, respond as “Interested” in the event or follow the Alabama Farmers Federation page.

This Virtual Field Trips project was developed in conjunction with Girl Scouts of Southern Alabama (GSSA).

(Original reporting by Alabama Farmer Federation’s Mary Wilson contributed to this report.)

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Health

COVID-19 patient at EAMC becomes hospital’s first to be removed from ventilator

Eddie Burkhalter

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A COVID-19 patient at East Alabama Medical Center on Sunday became the first to improve well enough to be removed from a ventilator.

In a video posted to the Opelika hospital’s Facebook page, hospital staff line a hallway and cheer 48-year-old Tony Thornton as he is wheeled from the ICU to a regular hospital room.

Thornton, who lives in Auburn, was admitted to EAMC on March 20 and intubated, the hospital said in a statement Tuesday.

Thornton was removed from a ventilator on Sunday and was moved to a regular room Tuesday, according to the hospital.

“I am still weak, but feeling pretty good. I talked to my wife for the first time and that was wonderful,” Thornton said Tuesday, according to the hospital. “People need to follow the guidelines. This is a big deal.”

In addition to Thornton’s improvements, 29 other hospitalized COVID-19 patients have been discharged from EAMC.

As of Tuesday evening, there were 2,197 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Alabama and 64 reported deaths from the virus, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health. There have been a total of 271 COVID-19 hospitalizations statewide.

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Layoffs, pay cuts and potential closures: Alabama hospitals strapped for cash

Chip Brownlee

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Pickens County Medical Center was the most recent rural hospital in Alabama to close. It closed in early March before the coronavirus.

More than half of Alabama’s hospitals were already in a precarious situation before coronavirus.

About 52 percent of the state’s hospitals had negative total margins before COVID-19, and 75 percent of them had negative operating margins, according to Alabama Hospital Association President Donald Williamson.

In layman’s terms, they were bleeding money.

Rural hospitals were in much worse shape. Nearly 90 percent of them had negative operating margins before the coronavirus outbreak. In the last eight years, at least 13 hospitals have closed in the state. More than half were in rural areas.

The last to close was Pickens County Medical Center in Carrollton, Alabama, which closed last month, leaving the rural county west of Tuscaloosa without a hospital. The next-closest hospital is more than 30 miles away.

But with COVID-19 impacting nearly every aspect of life, even in Alabama’s least-populated counties, hospitals, especially the small ones, have gone from bleeding money to hemorrhaging it.

“Hospitals around the country are struggling. Everyone’s bleeding. It’s just that we have less blood,” said Ryan Kelly, the executive director of the Alabama Rural Health Association, a group that represents the state’s rural hospitals and clinics. “If everyone is dying, we’re going to die quicker. It’s not a good position to be in.”

The outbreak of the coronavirus has forced officials to take extraordinary measures to protect the public. But these measures, meant to protect hospitals from being overwhelmed, are also exposing a deep and precarious situation underlying Alabama’s health care system.

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Smaller budgets mean less to trim. There is only so much that can be cut. And if it was trimmable, these cash-strapped hospitals have probably already cut it. More efficiency can’t solve these hospitals’ problems.

The pandemic prompted state officials to cancel elective procedures, which are generally more profitable and account for a large portion of most hospitals’ revenues.

“Elective surgeries were really the only way some of these hospitals could make money,” Williamson said. “Coronavirus is seriously stressing hospitals.”

But elective procedures being canceled or postponed is not the only hit hospitals are taking. Sources of revenue from many other nonessential services have also dried up.

“They can’t really do a lot of wellness and prevention, because that’s not high on people’s radar, either,” Kelly said of the rural hospitals. “We’ve kind of built our health care infrastructure to be more wellness and prevention heavy. And that was great until something like this when wellness and prevention are seen more as luxuries. Now we’re back to just treating the sick patients, especially the critically sick.”

Fewer patients are showing up in emergency rooms, Kelly said, further cutting into costs. Telehealth and telemedicine is a growing revenue stream at these hospitals, but it is not yet in a position to match the lost revenue.

“It’s a tough position for everyone to be in,” Kelly said. “Most of our revenue was built off these other procedures that have largely stopped or, at a minimum, slowed.”

According to the Chartis Center for Rural Health, about a quarter of Alabama’s 45 rural hospitals are among a few hundred rural hospitals across the country considered “most vulnerable” to closure. The same report found that rural hospitals in states that have not expanded Medicaid are more vulnerable to closure.

Kelly said Medicaid expansion, at this point, wouldn’t be a “silver bullet” to solve the financial problems facing the state’s rural hospitals, though it could help. The Alabama Hospital Association, though, has advocated for Medicaid expansion to bolster revenues for the state’s hospitals and expand health care access.

Hospitals across the state have lower bed occupancy as officials prepare surge capacity ahead of what is anticipated to be a spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations by mid-April. As of Tuesday morning, hospitals across the state were at about 50 percent occupancy, Williamson said, down from 70 percent on a normal day.

Williamson also fears that hospitals could be forced to eat the costs of treating uninsured COVID-19 patients who may require hospitalization as the outbreak spreads. The state’s refusal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act — when most of the cost of the expansion would have been borne by the federal government — has resulted in a larger uninsured population in Alabama. Some 16 to 20 percent of adults in the state are uninsured. Bearing the cost of that uncompensated care could add to the strain.

One of Congress’s coronavirus response bills, the CARES Act, has $100 billion in funding for hospitals across the country. But that cash has not arrived yet, and no hospital is certain how much money it will get and if it will be enough to stabilize the balance sheets.

“Once it begins to be distributed, that will serve as a major help for hospitals, but it’s just not there right now,” Williamson said.

And many of the state’s hospitals don’t have a lot of money on hand to wait weeks or months for help. Some only have days, especially the rural hospitals, Kelly said.

“I would say that you could put good money on another hospital or two or four closing, but I’m certainly praying that does not happen,” Kelly said. “But really these hospitals only have days or weeks of cash on hand. You disrupt that revenue cycle any, and you could end up in a pretty big predicament.”

Kelly said some estimates have said hospitals could face a 20 percent cut in revenue during the COVID-19 crisis — maybe even more. “I have not talked to a single facility yet that has said their business was normal,” Kelly said.

The dire budgetary situation facing more than half of the state’s hospitals has forced some to lay off health care workers and support staff and cut the pay or hours of some of those who can’t stop working.

Williamson and Kelly said they were aware of hospitals being forced to take these cost-cutting measures, but they did not have numbers to show how many hospitals have needed to do so and how many workers and providers have been affected.

Workers at hospitals are not the only health care workers affected by the virus. Dentists, providers at smaller clinics, rehab specialists and other medical practitioners have also been forced to scale back or temporarily shut down operations.

According to the Alabama Department of Labor, some 7,324 health care and social assistance workers filed an initial jobless claim for unemployment insurance in Alabama last week.

Even the state’s larger hospitals like Huntsville Hospital and DCH in Tuscaloosa have cut back the hours of workers in nonessential areas. Huntsville Hospital CEO David Spillers said at a briefing last week that the medical system would lose millions of dollars every month during the pandemic.

Williamson and Kelly said hospitals are doing everything they can to avoid cutting pay or laying off workers. When layoffs have been required, they said they have been in areas that would be the last to respond to COVID-19 cases and the least likely to affect a hospital’s ability to handle a surge.

“But that’s still not ideal,” Kelly said. “Let alone the fact that we need our hospitals right now to be ready in case there’s a surge of COVID-19 cases. So the last thing we want to do is just shut down operations when we might need it.”

The state’s hospitals are facing other problems, too, including shortages of personal protective equipment, Williamson said.

“I’ve got some hospitals that are telling me they have maybe a week’s worth of PPE,” Williamson said. “I’ve got a few others that are feeling that their shortages are more immediate.”

Hospitals have been trying to source PPE — including masks, gowns and gloves — from non-traditional suppliers, through donations and through the state. The Alabama Department of Public Health has secured some additional PPE, Williamson said.

The shortage is causing the prices to go up and making obtaining those essential supplies difficult.

“It is concerning how difficult it is to get,” Williamson said. “But I certainly don’t think we’re in the situation of New York.”

While the state’s largest hospitals like UAB in Birmingham, Huntsville Hospital in Huntsville, EAMC in Lee County and DCH Regional Medical Center in Tuscaloosa will likely bear the brunt of the COVID-19 patient surge, rural hospitals are not immune from it.

Many are already treating COVID-19 patients, Kelly said, and they may be needed to help alleviate the burden on the larger hospitals, Williamson said.

“When you look at how you manage surge, you start by eliminating elective procedures because you want to free up beds,” Williamson said. “But the next part of that plan is you take people who may not have COVID, who may not need the level of acute care provided in urban hospitals, and you transfer some of those patients into, say, a rural hospital.”

But that surge plan requires those rural hospitals to be there to be able to help.

“We’re just trying to hang on,” Kelly said. “You know, targeting cuts and layoffs, and conserve money as best as possible but still be ready for patients coming in. That’s the position that most hospitals are in.”

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