by Hope Salyer
Pull open the heavy door, step into the building and the all too familiar scent of antiseptic and hand sanitizer wafts through your nose. The sound of the “Today Show” anchors can be heard over laughter and talking behind the office window. Step up to the registration area, and all of the normality of a doctor’s office fades away. Instead of a receptionist barely glancing up while asking for your driver’s license and insurance card, one of three receptionists, Michelle Feasel, Michelle (Shelly) Pargoff or Lisa Schneider looks at you with a smile on her face and greets you by name. While checking in at the window, your neighbor and best friend’s mom walks through the door and says hello.
This is what Family Medicine of Stockbridge patients have grown accustomed to. So when it was announced that the St. Joseph Mercy/Trinity Health-owned office was to close this fall, to say it was a complete shock to the office’s 1,600 patients is an understatement.
Opened in 2001, Family Medicine of Stockbridge has been providing care to the greater Stockbridge Community for the past 18 years. Patients have been seeing family care physician Tonya Sexton, D.O., since its opening.
While a few nurse practitioners, such as current NP Nicole Ehinger, NP-C, have occasionally been added to the office staff rotation, Sexton has stayed at the office, growing closer to her patients, both young and old, with each passing year.
Lead Certified Medical Assistant Jill Perkins and clinical coordinator Beth Hoffner are two examples of the many familiar faces Family Medicine of Stockbridge employed. Perkins and Hoffner could always be seen in the office, brightening the days of each patient they encountered; always asking about the patient’s lives, families or weekend plans and overall making patients feel comfortable and safe at the office. And who could forget Hoffner’s personal admission of “singing horribly to patients.”
St. Joseph Mercy Chelsea president and CEO Nancy Graebner said, “The staff that have supported Family Medicine of Stockbridge are some of the most compassionate, supportive physician staff you could have.”
Community members loved the staff so much, some went as far as to say they were like family. A post asking if the office was actually closing on a Stockbridge area Facebook group on July 16 reached nearly 130 comments within hours.
“I’m so sad about this. Dr. Sexton, Beth Beth and Jill Perkins are like family and have taken great care of me and my family for years,” Cheryl Christian wrote on the post. “Thank you for that.”
Deanna Kruger wrote, “I am very sad to hear this. The office is very important to my family and our community. To not have a doctor in town is so sad.”
Robert Fineman reiterated her statement, “A community this size ought to have certain basic amenities, such as a post office, library, grocery store, hardware, and a doctor’s office.” Fineman continued, “This office is closing due solely to economic considerations based on the expectations of the for-profit hospital group by which it is owned. We appreciated having medical service so close at hand and hope that another physician can make a go here.”
Many Stockbridge residents, whether Family Medicine of Stockbridge patients or not, are confused by and worried about the sudden closing of the office. Nerves of how elderly residents are going to find a new doctor within easy traveling distance to them, how the few practices in the surrounding areas are going to be able to accommodate everyone and how this with overall impact the community lead to an emergency meeting between Trinity Health officials and local community leaders.
In a phone interview, St. Joseph Mercy Chelsea president and CEO, Nancy Graebner, provided answers to some of the community’s leading questions. Below is a Q & A session with Graebner:
Q: What is the exact date the office is closing?
A: The office is scheduled to close Sept. 27, 2019. Sexton and Ehinger are relocating to IHA Family and Internal Medicine in Howell. They will begin seeing patients on Oct. 1, 2019.
Q: What led to the closing of the office?
A: First I want to say that this was not an easy decision for the health system. We know it creates a sense of loss, sadness and an inconvenience for Stockbridge. St. Joseph Mercy continues to look at strategies from all markets. Payer and insurance reimbursements change each year and are getting more compressed. With our scarce resources, it’s difficult to support a solo practice in a small-town setting. St. Joe’s is committed to providing the practice of today and tomorrow, and having one larger campus with all divisions available in one spot allows us to provide consistent services.
Tonya Sexton is a passionate provider, and this was not a decision she would have made. This is very difficult for her as well. She loves the Stockbridge community, and her patients, so she is grieving. She understands the health care arena we work in today. This is not something she would have initiated, but having colleagues when she’s on vacation that can help provide care for her patients, and having access to lab work and after hour care will allow a more comprehensive care for her patients.
Q: If money is the issue, what would have helped St. Joe, or what may help companies in the future, stay in rural offices?
A: I would first like to say this was not solely a financial issue. We are trying to put scarce resources together to use them in the best way for our patients. We want to create one medical home where you can get all services in the same spot. I don’t think there’s a specific amount of dollars that would have allowed us to keep the practice open. Sole practices aren’t sustainable at this time.
Q: While this may or may not have been a difficult decision for St. Joseph Mercy, this decision has a huge impact on the Stockbridge Community. Stockbridge residents have had access to a local doctor for at least the past 55-60 years, and many community members are very upset about this decision. Did St. Joe’s take this into consideration before making this decision? And what steps did the company take to try to stop this from happening?
A: As I’ve said, this was not an easy decision. Our physician pool with IHA was looked at for a long period of time. Every year at budgets, we look at our locations and how to look at things differently to best serve the community. We’ve already held a community meeting through our mission discernment Catholic system between members of our organization and leading community members, which allows us to look at the issue through different lenses and voice our feelings with each other to talk through this. It’s been a long part of the Chelsea services that we’ve provided to Stockbridge, and while we would love for everything to stay the same, health care is changing, and we have to change with the times. We need to try to stay current to use our scarce resources well. Payer reimbursement is constantly changing, so while we would like things to stay the same, and we always want to say yes, we just don’t have the resources to always say yes.
We do want to help patients seek new avenues for health care and listen to the ideas they may have about that (editors note: an email address is listed at the end of this article for community members to contact St. Joseph Mercy Chelsea about the closing of Family Medicine of Stockbridge). We also want to stress that we know of the 1,600 patients Family Medicine of Stockbridge sees, a large chunk of them come from different ZIP codes outside of Stockbridge. While we would love everyone to stay with us, we know that some will seek care toward Lansing, Jackson or Pinckney, and we are committed to making the transfer of medical records as easy as possible.
We’ve also looked at Intellihealth options, like Facetime or Skype, that would allow patients to receive health care online. There’s also a 24-hour ER department at St. Joseph Mercy Chelsea and Michigan Medicine and IHA have an office on our Chelsea Campus for patients to utilize.
Q: Did you consider switching from a one-doctor full-time office to a part-time office or an urgent care to better serve the community, rather than just leaving the community without a doctor?
A: We are still working through what the future might look like. Transportation to get patients to care sites that provides consistent medical care with more than one physician is a better care environment for patients. The problem with a part-time office or Urgent Care is would it really be available when people need it? If we continue to look at this, I don’t know what we could do, but I don’t think that system would work.
Q: What is going to happen to the office staff? Are they being relocated? Are they losing their jobs and not being transferred?
A: The staff will have opportunities to continue their employment with St. Joseph Mercy. Some may follow to Howell. IHA is working to help place them. We are also interview some staff members for the available Chelsea Hospital positions. We have a lot of support for the staff.
Many of them may find they end up having two or three options for where they want to go. We are really confident we can place them if they decide to relocate to another practice. The staff that has supported Tonya are some of the most compassionate, supportive physician staff you could have.
Q: Stockbridge is a small town, and many people rely on Family Medicine of Stockbridge for their medical care. How does St. Joe/Trinity Health plan to help patients in the Stockbridge community find a new doctor? How do you expect the very few practices in the surrounding areas to take on everyone in need of a new doctor?
A: Wherever the patient wants to seek care next, we will make sure the transfer of medical records are easy for the patient. We do believe through the suggested sites, we will be able to accommodate patients that want to go there.
Q: Tonya and Nicole are both being transferred to an IHA office in Howell? Does this mean IHA is going to be taking over care for the Stockbridge area? Or is there a Trinity Health/IHA Merger in the works?
A: IHA has been with St. Joseph Mercy since around 2009-2010. Historically, we had IHA physicians and practices separated, and about a year and a half ago, we decided it was better to have IHA be the managing party for St. Joseph Mercy group.
Q: What will happen to the empty office building? Could another health organization such as U of M, Sparrow or Henry Ford buy the building?
A: We are certainly in the early stages of looking into the real estate of the building. We’re still in the process of discussing what we want to do with the building. If we decided to list it, we would not prevent someone else from providing medical care in that building. It’s a very nice building, and we would not stand in the way of anyone who wanted to purchase the building.
Q: What specifically do you want Stockbridge residents and Family Medicine of Stockbridge patients to know about the closing?
A: I really want to emphasize that we really want to listen to Stockbridge residents in terms of creative and innovative ideas regarding transportation. What would be a helpful approach? Would a call center for an Uber or Lyft or access to the Wave bus help? Would specific handicap transportation be helpful? These suggestions would help me to better utilize the community benefits to help the Stockbridge community. I also want to reiterate that wherever patients go for their future care, we will work with them to make it easy for medical information to be transferred because continuity of care is a high priority for us.
Q: Is there anything else I didn’t ask you about that you want to make sure I include?
A: I want Stockbridge residents to know that we are still committed to Stockbridge. We provide support through various initiatives, including our community benefit funding, which has funded a lot of initiatives in the community, including Stockbridge Community Outreach, 5 Healthy Towns, SRSLY and physical therapy at our Chelsea location is now available for Stockbridge students.
Anyone wishing to send feedback, suggestions, request a call back or address any concerns should email St. Joseph Mercy Chelsea at firstname.lastname@example.org. They will be monitoring the email and responding to each individual.
Below is a list of the other nearby locations St. Joseph Mercy Chelsea are recommending to patients, though they will help patients transfer their care to any location they would like:
- Dexter Internal Medicine & Pediatrics, St. Joe’s Medical Group
7093 Dexter-Ann Arbor Rd.
Dexter, MI 48130
- IHA Brighton Family Care
2305 Genoa Business Park Dr., Suite 200
Brighton, MI 48114
- IHA Chelsea Family & Internal Medicine
128 Van Buren St.
Chelsea, MI 48118
- IHA Pinckney Family Medicine
1255 E. M36
Pinckney, MI 48169
- Michigan Medicine Chelsea Health Center
14700 E. Old US Hwy. 12
Chelsea, MI 48118
- Michigan Medicine Dexter Health Center
7300 Dexter Ann Arbor Rd., Ste. 110
Dexter, MI 48130