Holy Cross Hospital

Local elected officials say that the county’s only emergency room is “overwhelmed” with acute care patients due to having trouble finding available beds at larger facilities around the state.

A letter sent last week by Southern Arizona elected officials indicated that Holy Cross Hospital in Nogales, along with other rural hospitals in the area, was “overwhelmed” with acute care patients and having trouble finding beds for patients at larger hospital facilities.

The Sept. 17 letter stated that overcrowding at major medical centers – like those in Tucson and Phoenix – meant that they weren’t accepting timely patient transfers from smaller hospitals. Local emergency rooms routinely send patients to larger hospitals, where they can access more intensive medical care.

Data from the Arizona Department of Health Services indicates that COVID-19 hospitalizations rose throughout the state in August and early September, but daily hospitalization numbers have fallen over the past week. In some instances, a surge in COVID-19 patients has left major hospitals without enough room to treat patients facing other emergencies or offer beds to patients coming from other medical centers.

“The Douglas, Ariz. clinic and the emergency room in Nogales, Ariz., Benson Hospital and Northern Cochise Community Hospital in Willcox are overwhelmed,” the letter stated, not referring to Holy Cross by name.

The letter was addressed to state health officials in Phoenix and signed by supervisors from Pima, Cochise, Yuma and Santa Cruz counties. Bruce Bracker, supervisor for District 3, signed on behalf of Santa Cruz County. The letter called for an expansion of the “COVID-19 surge line” to allow for transfers of non-COVID patients. It also said that “financial assistance” to struggling rural medical centers was necessary.

“It’s a challenge and something that we’re hearing about from our medical professionals,” Bracker said in a follow-up phone call. He said that, before COVID-19, the hospital was usually able to transfer patients in an hour, but those transfers now sometimes took more than a day.

Dina Sanchez, the chief administrative officer for Holy Cross Hospital, initially said she would respond to the NI’s inquiries but she didn’t send a reply by the NI’s press deadline on Thursday. Holy Cross, which is owned by for-profit Dallas-based Tenet Healthcare, hasn’t responded to questions about its operations since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Holy Cross received more than $1 million in additional Medicaid payments from the state last year as part of a plan to help so-called critical access hospitals in rural areas. The hospital didn’t specify what it used the money for.

Adam Amezaga, chief of the Rio Rico Fire Department, said his department wasn’t handling large numbers of patient transfers from Nogales. RRFD is the local agency certified to transfer patients from Holy Cross Hospital to facilities in Tucson and Phoenix. But Amezaga noted that the department simply responds to calls for transfers – they aren’t necessarily informed about problems staffers could have had in locating patient beds in other hospitals.

Dr. Eladio Pereira, the chief medical officer of Mariposa Community Health Center, said he couldn’t speak to the situation at Holy Cross, but said that “generally speaking, hospitals are concerned” about bed capacity in light of increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases.

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