Leaders in Oklahoma town head to court fighting to keep rural hospital open

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PRAGUE, Okla. - Leaders in one Oklahoma town are fighting to keep the doors open at its one and only hospital after they say corporate greed has nearly shut it down.

Now, the fight is spilling into a federal courtroom.

Ask anyone in a small Oklahoma town the value of their local hospital - if they still have one - and they'll tell you the same thing.

"The benefits of having a hospital here in town, you save one life, what’s the value of life? That’s priceless," City Manager Jim Greff said.

About 80 employees work at the Prague hospital in this town of just under 2,400 people.

It's the only emergency room for 20 miles.

So you can imagine the concern hospital employees showed up at a city council meeting just before Christmas and said none of them got a paycheck.

"It was very distressing to hear the conditions that were actually going on there. I didn’t have any idea it was that bad," Greff said.

Hospital employees did not get paid in December, and payroll was missed again February 1st. Employees finally got their money on Monday, February 4th, but the money problems don’t end there.

Employees say money is coming out of their paychecks for health insurance, but they say the hospital operator has let their insurance policies lapse.

"The owner got back in touch with me a few days later and said, ‘hey I’m trying to get the money together to get the payroll, things just got tight, and we’re trying to get the money where we can get everything caught up,'" Greff said.

City leaders weren't buying it and hired a law firm.

Finances for the Prague hospital are not controlled locally.

The hospital is operated by and out-of-state corporation, Empower HMS.

 "It appears that if they need money or supplies or anything else, they have to ask for those funds from some corporate headquarters somewhere whether it’s Kansas or Florida, we’re not entirely sure… they might not receive those funds," attorney Jeff Tate said.

In fact, News 4 is told employees had to get food donated for patients recently.

Empower HMS has also not paid rent in 14 months.

They lease the building from the city. That lease ran out in December.

Now, the city is suing to keep the lights on until they can find a new operator to take over.

"Everybody’s pulling together, and the main thing is our employees have stuck together," Mayor of Prague, Cliff Bryant, said.

 Online, Empower HMS touts itself as a corporation trying to save rural hospitals.

But we found CEO Jorge Perez and his company are being sued by rural hospitals around the country.

He's cashed in on using them for lab testing for labs performed in other facilities because insurance companies will reimburse rural hospitals at a higher rate.

The legal team for Prague is looking into whether that was happening here.

"The way the company is set up is to mask those red flags because they’re all up at the corporate level, so until all the wheels fall off the vehicle, you don’t necessarily know as the passenger what’s going on," Tate said.

The City of Prague is asking a federal judge this month to appoint a third party to take over the hospital books and hire a new operator to keep the doors open at this community's lifeline.

"I want to do everything I can to make sure our senior citizens to have an emergency care hospital and our schools, we have one of the greatest schools around, and they deserve to have a hospital ready for them if need be," Bryant said.

News 4 reached out to the attorneys for Empower HMS multiple times for comment but did not hear back.

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