BENSON — The Benson Hospital has been serving the Benson community and surrounding area since 1970.

Established as a critical access hospital, the facility has managed to grow and thrive at a time when rural hospitals throughout the country were closing.

In a hospital update presented to the Benson City Council, Hospital Chief Executive Officer Julia Strange addressed past financial struggles, the hospital’s current financial picture, plans for expansion, COVID challenges, and future investments for improving the facility.

Overcoming financial struggles

In her update, Strange spoke of the formation of the Southern Arizona Hospital Alliance, a group of nonprofit hospitals that includes Tucson Medical Center, Benson Hospital, Copper Queen Community Hospital in Bisbee, Northern Cochise in Willcox and Mount Graham Regional Medical Center in Safford. The alliance provided opportunities for the rural, hospitals to benefit financially while receiving best-practice guidance from TMC.

Through Benson Hospital’s long history of collaboration with TMC Healthcare, which includes Tucson Medical Center, Strange said Benson Hospital formed a closer alignment with TMC Healthcare to help navigate some of the financial challenges it was facing in 2018.

“The Benson board reached out to Tucson Medical Center and asked if TMC Healthcare would be willing to provide financial resources to help the hospital,” Strange said.

“TMC made a commitment, and with that, reconfigured its board to include more TMC Healthcare representation.”

The move meant that Benson Hospital became an affiliate of TMC Healthcare, which helped the hospital financially, thereby improving its bottom line, Strange noted.

In January 2019, TMC Healthcare focused on stabilizing the hospital’s financial position with a goal of establishing solid financial footing for the future.

The hospital received “critical assistance from different sources, including a $900,000 appropriation from the state,” which represented a short-term boost that helped to bridge the gap to the hospital’s future financial stability.

While the initial goal was to bring about a $1.5 million turnaround within 12 months, the hospital accomplished much more than that.

“It was closer to a $2.5 million financial turnaround in 12 months,” Strange reported. “In January 2020 the Benson Hospital was on solid financial ground and growing. Then COVID hit.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, Benson Hospital has performed 2,000 COVID tests, with 251 of those coming back positive. The region reported 625 positive COVID cases, so about one-third of the diagnoses came through the Benson Hospital.

“That gives you an idea of the significance of the services we provide,” Strange said.

While most of the COVID patients that have been seen at the Benson Hospital go through primary care and the emergency department, the hospital has also seen its share of inpatient COVID cases.

“That number has grown significantly as the larger urban medical centers exceeded capacity,” Strange said. “We had to get creative and keep some of these patients that we might have previously transferred to a higher level of care because there simply wasn’t a bed to transfer them to.”

When hospitals across the state are at capacity, there are times when the Benson Hospital is forced to transfer patients to Phoenix, Show Low and other parts of the state, creating “a significant stressor to our patients and their families” when a loved one is “two, four, or six hours away,” Strange said while describing the challenges caused by COVID.

The hospital currently is focused on the importance of getting vaccinated, including educating the public about the vaccine’s safety and efficacy. Hospital staff started receiving vaccinations around the holidays, and now the 75 and older age groups are in line for vaccinations.

On Friday, Benson Unified School District employees were filing in for their vaccinations, with Lois Turner, a hospital registered nurse, answering questions, assisting with paperwork and administering the shots.

“We expect to be running between 30 and 40 vaccinations a day,” said Ashley Dickey, the hospital’s public information officer. “Today is a big day for school employees because their schedules are a little more flexible on Friday.”

Dickey said the hospital is setting up vaccination appointments as vaccine is made available.

Concerns about vaccine availability is something Strange addressed during her presentation. She feels that Cochise County is not receiving enough vaccine to meet the area’s needs, something she said the hospital is working on.

Strange also touched on “early intervention therapeutics” in the treatment of COVID. One of these is a monoclonal antibody infusion that can be provided within 10 days of symptoms for people who meet certain criteria.

When Tucson Medical Center, in collaboration with U.S. Health and Human Services, treated more than 300 high-risk individuals with monoclonal infusions, the treatments proved very successful, Strange said.

“We are extraordinarily encouraged by that. Benson (Hospital) was able to learn from TMC, bring all that best practice back here and start doing those infusions in Benson.”

What is the hospital’s vision?

“We are a growing, thriving critical access hospital that is proud to be affiliated with TMC Healthcare,” Strange said.

“What we have been able to preserve is really an economic engine,” said Strange, who noted that Benson health care employs 450 full-time employees and boasts an annual payroll of $9 million.

Despite COVID and its challenges, the hospital has continued to grow, reflecting a “year-over-year revenue growth of $16 million in 2019 to $21 million in 2020,” Strange said.

The hospital has a 22-bed inpatient care unit, a full service emergency department and Level 4 trauma center. The emergency department sees about 8,000 patients a year, with patient satisfaction ratings at 90 percent.

In-patient and out-patient physical therapy services also are available.

Outpatient services include wound care and infusion, and an extensive laboratory with a satellite lab. Coordinated behavioral health services — through a company called Concert Health — represent a new addition for patients.

Benson Hospital received a $400,000 telehealth grant to develop the Southern Arizona Rural Telehealth Network, which will bring more specialty care to Benson.

Community support

The Benson Hospital partners with the community to help improve health in a number of areas.

Such support as meal programs for the schools, performing COVID tests for school staff and administering vaccinations are examples of outreach efforts the hospital provides.

Benson Hospital also supported the relocation and continued growth of the Community Food Pantry of Benson.

The Chiricahua Community Health Center COVID testing site in Benson also benefited from the hospital through funding support for some of its drive-through testing events.

Hospital improvementsNew paint, signage, a $300,000 lab analyzer, renovations to four patient rooms and 14 new hospital beds are some of the improvements the hospital has received.

“We doubled the size of the Fourth Street clinic, and in 2021, we have allocated $560,000 for other capital improvements within the hospital,” Strange said.

“In February, we’re going to be announcing a $4 million expansion to create a new inpatient/outpatient state-of the art imaging center at the north of the hospital,” Strange said. The project’s groundbreaking is in February, with the imaging center expected to open in September.

“Our alliance and TMC has allowed us to get to a stable point without losing our community connection,” Strange told the board. “This is about Benson and what we can do to improve the health of Benson and all of the people who live here.”