Temporary closure of Healthmark emergency room 'very serious concern.' When will it reopen?

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — Healthmark Regional Medical Center in DeFuniak Springs will close its emergency room for anywhere from two weeks to one month, creating what Walton County Sheriff Michael Adkinson calls "a very serious concern" that "will greatly affect transport times and the availability of ambulance services in the county."

Adkinson told the Walton County Board of County Commissioners on Tuesday that the Sheriff's Office learned last week that Healthmark would soon close its emergency room "for a period of time ... to do some refurbishment and remodeling."

The closure of the hospital's emergency room will mean that other area hospitals will receive patients who normally would have been treated at Healthmark Regional Medical Center on U.S. Highway 331 North just south of DeFuniak Springs.

A Walton County Fire Rescue (WCFR) ambulance sits Healthmark Regional Medical Center in DeFuniak Springs. Healthmark will temporarily close its emergency room, and WCFR has added an ambulance to its fleet to help deal with anticipated increases in call volume and transport time to other hospitals.

Lisa Holley, the hospital's chief operations officer, told commissioners the facility anticipated closing its emergency room for a month unless it can get some additional assistance with planned construction work, which could cut the closure to two weeks.

At Tuesday's commission meeting, Holley was asked to meet with the county government administration and with Commission Chairman Mike Barker to explore ways in which the county might help shorten the time the emergency room will be closed.

The temporary closure is of particular concern to the Sheriff's Office because "we don't known the length of time that emergency room is going to be closed," Adkinson told the commissioners.

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Walton County Fire Rescue (WCFR), which provides fire and emergency services north of Choctawhatchee Bay and has been part of the Sheriff's Office since 2017, added a seventh ambulance to its service area Sunday in anticipation of more calls and longer transport times to other medical facilities.

Previous plans had called for the extra ambulance to be brought into service in April as part of the WCFR's regular planning for future needs.

The recently added ambulance has advanced life support capability and is staffed by one emergency medical technician and one paramedic, according to a news release from the Sheriff's Office.

The Sheriff's Office also plans to get an eighth ambulance on the road that "will run as staffing allows," Adkinson told county commissioners. 

"We just simply don't have the crew to run an eighth ambulance for 24 hours (a day)," he said.

But Adkinson added that surrounding jurisdictions have offered ambulances for the county's use.

"We're certainly not too proud to avail ourselves of help," the sheriff said.

In further comments, Adkinson said, "Walton County Fire Rescue transports about 100 people a month to Healthmark. Every one of those patients will have to go now either to Sacred Heart (Ascension Sacred Heart Emerald Coast hospital in Miramar Beach) or out of the county."

That circumstance could add two or more hours to transport times for people who suffer medical emergencies in the northern reaches of Walton County, Adkinson added.

Adding to the pressures anticipated by WCFR is that Healthmark Regional Medical Center has about 800 "walk-in" emergency room patients each month, he said.

"Those walk-ins now could potentially be requesting ambulance transports," Adkinson said. "If a quarter of those individuals request an ambulance transport now, the strain on the system is going to be significant. ... If 300 people request transport, we're in pretty serious straits."

A related concern is people who show up at Healthmark not knowing that the emergency room is closed, he added. 

The sheriff expressed particular concern about the affect of Healthmark's emergency room closure on Sacred Heart. He noted that the hospital in the south county will simultaneously be dealing emergencies that come with spring break crowds.  

The Sheriff's Office already has contacted hospitals outside Walton County to inform them of the pending closure of the Healthmark Regional Medical Center's emergency room so that they can be prepared for more patients.

“We want to ensure residents the excellent quality of care they receive through Walton County Fire Rescue emergency medical services will continue as we adjust to these changes,” Adkinson said in a Sheriff's Office news release. "... (O)ur staff is committed to doing everything in our power to make sure residents and visitors are informed of this change and those in our community receive the emergency care they need."

"From our standpoint, we're going to do whatever it takes to staff the ambulances," Adkinson told county commissioners Tuesday. "If that means drafting people to drive ambulances, we'll do what we have to do.

"But nothing about that is going to mitigate the amount of transport time. There is simply nothing I can do about that. And that concerns me greatly," he said.

Adkinson added that a DeFuniak Springs resident could face the "very serious potential of having to wait an extended period of time to get to a hospital emergency room."

He touted the training of WCFR personnel and their equipment, but added, "at the end of the day, minutes save lives."

"We're in a bind," Adkinson said. "We're going to stand up the (ambulance) crews as quickly as we can. We'll pay overtime, we'll bring people in. But if I've got to take you from Paxton to Fort Walton (HCA Fort Walton-Destin Hospital in Fort Walton Beach, a distance of more than 50 miles), that's a real problem."