Northern Maine Medical Center, located in Fort Kent, would have shut its doors in 2023 had significant changes not improved its financial situation, according to the CEO. Credit: Don Eno / The St. John Valley Times

FORT KENT, Maine — A hospital that serves more than 14,500 patients in rural northern Maine would have shut its doors in 2023 had significant changes not improved its financial situation, according to the CEO.

Northern Maine Medical Center CEO Jeff Zewe said that a group commissioned by the hospital to study its finances told the board that if it kept up standard operating procedure, the hospital would not survive beyond Christmas of 2023. The comment was made during a Wednesday press conference held at the hospital.

People in the remote area of rural northern Maine already have to travel long distances for some medical services, but notable changes the board is making will expand specialty services to patients while improving the hospital budget.

“That’s the reality. That’s happening. We’re not going to let this place close,” Zewe said.

The hospital is operating in the black only because of federal COVID-19 subsidies that are no longer being offered.

In 2021, it appeared NMMC had a net profit of $3 million, but without $11 million in federal pandemic funds received that year, the hospital would have been $8 million in debt, according to NMMC Chief Financial Officer Aaron Teachout.

By 2025, that debt would rise to a $13 million deficit without changes, Teachout said.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do to get this corrected,” he said.

Since Zewe took the helm of the administration a year ago, the hospital has experienced significant changes, some of which have residents concerned.

The hospital has capitalized on its strengths including the fact that it has the only behavioral health unit for adults and children north of Bangor, administrators said.

The administration has worked with other Maine hospitals to take on patients who have mental health crises, increasing its number of patients in that unit by 49 percent.

“They have mental health patients in their ERs taking up beds. It’s a crisis,” Zewe said. “In behavioral health alone, we’ve added a couple million dollars to the bottom line just by filling those beds.”

Other changes include a new radiology group that provides an in-house radiologist two days a week, and the hiring of two new orthopedic surgeons and an oncologist. The hospital is also recruiting for a full-time cardiologist.

Zewe said NMMC performed more radiology procedures in the past five months than all last year.

Some changes to the hospital that met with residents’ displeasure include the  impending closure of the obstetrics unit on May 26. The administration cites a lack of OB nurses as the main reason for the closure.

Board Vice Chairperson Erin Soucy, who is also Dean of Nursing at University of Maine at Fort Kent, said a nationwide nursing shortage has made it difficult to fill positions in all departments, including OB.

“It took time for that to reach the [St. John] Valley and Aroostook County, but it’s here and we’re all feeling it,” Soucy said of the nursing shortage.

NMMC Chief operating officer Alain Bois said that not one person applied for an advertised OB nursing position at the hospital over the course of an entire year, despite the offer of a generous sign-on bonus.

Soucy said the board has faith in Zewe and other administrators and that an emotional discussion was held when deciding to close the OB unit.

“We did not take the decision lightly. We talked about it a lot,” Soucy said.  

Another concern of many community members is a turnover of staff in recent months, including the departure of numerous physicians and nurses, notably from family practice.

Zewe said all but one of the departed care providers were offered other positions within the hospital system but declined to accept them.

“We’ve got 500 dedicated employees who I’m very confident are going to keep this place running and continue to provide exemplary care,” Zewe said.

Correction: An earlier version of this headline and story had the wrong year the hospital would have been in serious financial trouble. It is 2023. Also, an earlier version of this story indicated the incorrect amount of debt the hospital would have had without COVID-19 money. The correct figure is $8 million.