Two major local home healthcare providers have merged in the hopes of benefitting the community and streamlining operations.
Pioneer Home Health Care, Inc. and Hospice of The Owens Valley have joined forces under Pioneer’s roof and under its operational umbrella effective this month. The merger, according to both administrators, is expected to enhance both entities in a variety of ways.
Hospice, serving Owens Valley residents since the 80s, will be able to expand its patient base, for one thing, and Pioneer, in operation since 1990, gains a hospice program. A Hospice press release states, it is a natural pairing since both Hospice and Pioneer “share a conviction to help people die with dignity” when that time comes.
It was Hospice’s decision to approach Pioneer, in September 2012, about a merger. The decision was driven by a gradual realization that Hospice’s informal model could not meet current community needs nor comply with evolving health care regulations,” said Hospice Director Caitlin Higginbotham. The merger allows Hospice to continue providing end-of-life care to people with terminal illnesses and support for their families in Bishop and Big Pine and now from June Lake to Lone Pine, the area Pioneer’s home healthcare programs have always served.
All Hospice patients are now being cared for under the Pioneer umbrella” so there has been no lapse in care, said Pioneer Administrator Pat West.
Hospice personnel began operating out of Pioneer’s 162 E. Line St. facility in Bishop on Feb. 18, West said, and they anticipate Hospice to have all of its holdings out of its former home at 155 Pioneer Ln. by end of March.
Because of Hospice’s auxiliary affiliation with Northern Inyo Hospital “since its inception,” the hospital’s board was also asked to approve the merger, Higginbotham said. “The close relationships between NIH, Hospice and Pioneer will be maintained through the transition.” NIH nurses and community volunteers founded Hospice in the ’80s as a “free, volunteer-driven organization,” Higginbotham said.
At the Feb. 20 NIH Board of Directors meeting, NIH Administrator John Halfen recognized West’s efforts, saying, “Pat has done an awful lot of work in a short time (to) put together a business plan that makes sense to me” and the NIH board approved the plan which outlined the parameters of the merger.
There are other perks of this merger. Pioneer provides Hospice with the more formalized program Higginbotham said Hospice has been lacking – immediate nursing staff, more trained volunteers, 501c3 status, liability insurance and worker’s compensation, West said. Hospice is “evolving” and it “can no longer run only on the good hearts of volunteers.”
For its part, Pioneer needed a hospice program. “We are also caring for several hospice clients at any given time. We can transition patients from one program to another at any given time,” West said. Pioneer now offers four programs: senior care management, personal care, home health care and Hospice.
Since local doctors have long-standing relationships with both entities, “the merger will not change referral or care process much,” Hospice Medical Director Dr. Tom Boo said.
The merger allows Hospice and Pioneer’s combined multi-disciplinary, palliative care teams – nurses, chaplains, home health aides and social workers – to “provide medical, psychological and spiritual support” to its clients with a life expectancy of six months or less, in order to “improve quality of life” and ease “the hardship of death and loss to the extent possible,” Higginbotham said.
The next vital step: Hospice must become Medicare-certified in order to accept patients and bill under Medicare, West said. “My goal is to get that done by the end of July.” Until then, hospice patients will be accepted and billed under Pioneer’s home health certification.
In the long run, the Pioneer facility at 162 E. Line St. will not be its permanent home. It won’t be comfortable for Hospice “as it’s not their home and it’s not comfortable for us” as additional space is now necessary, West said. She is on the lookout for a 2,500-2,600 square-foot space with 10-12 parking spaces and “storage space about the size of a one-car garage.”
Not everyone was completely delighted with the idea of a merger at first. At the Jan. 16 NIH board meeting, long-time Hospice volunteer Mary Lou Sipherd, said, on behalf of other volunteers, “We don’t want to lose our identity as being connected to Northern Inyo; a lot of people donate to us because of that.”
However, on Feb. 19, Pioneer hosted a welcome lunch for Hospice and though some may have come half-heartedly, West said, “I hope they left full-heartedly.” The change required by the merger “is a grief process and they know best that working through it is a process,” she added.
West said Hospice “is priceless. It takes a very special person to lay their hand on people and comfort them.” Former Hospice Medical Director Dr. Asao Kamei agreed, saying, Hospice volunteers are its “corner stone.” He thanked all the volunteers, past and present. They don’t say anything, they just get the work done.
“Hospice patients have a very quiet voice,” Hospice is their advocate and it is important for NIH to continue to support it “in anyway possible,” Kamei said.
Boo, medical director since 2010, said that though he has a natural amount of trepidation, the merger is “going to be a good thing. I’m excited about it.”
In terms of recruiting for Hospice’s expanded service area, Boo said he hopes to get Mono County involved, service Mammoth Hospital patients and recruit some of its clinical staff as Hospice volunteers.
As part of the growth process, more hospice lay, clinical and spiritual guidance volunteers are needed, West said. “We’ve already got outreach to communities (from June Lake to Lone Pine).”
Higginbotham said that Hospice’s name, phone number and mission will remain the same.
NIH Board President Dr. John Ungersma said the merger “with Pioneer is a new beginning, not an end of Hospice.”
Call Hospice at (760) 873-3742 or Pioneer at (760) 872-4663 for more information regarding services, making donations or volunteering.