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New management requires unpaid former employees to return for back pay at Osage Co. hospital

FAIRFAX, Okla. - Court decisions are changing the immediate future of an Osage County hospital stuck in limbo, and of its employees who have worked months without pay.

On Thursday, a judge appointed Shawnee-based Cohesive Healthcare Management & Consultation LLC to take over the daily operations of Fairfax Community Hospital. The president of the company said he plans to get the hospital fully up and running again, re-hire employees who left, and distribute some unpaid wages. However, at least one former employee said she doesn't trust the company, and doesn't plan to return unless it's gone.

The statuses of that hospital along with Haskell County Community Hospital, Prague Municipal Hospital, and Drumright Regional Hospital have been in a state of uncertainty since the entity that owned all four, CAH Acquisition Company 12, LLC, filed for bankruptcy in North Carolina earlier this month. (Drumright Regional was dismissed out of the bankruptcy Wednesday.) A North Carolina trustee is now calling the shots, tasked with making as much money as possible with what's left of the hospitals to pay back creditors. Putting Cohesive in place as the managing company of the three remaining hospitals is part of that effort.

"Somebody out in North Carolina makes the decision for us that we don’t deserve to be heard in Oklahoma," said former Fairfax Community chief nursing officer Donna Renfro.  "There’s something not right with that."

Renfro's frustration comes after the city attempted and, for a short time, succeeded in gaining receivership of the hospital, a legal move that would have taken the property from its owner in the interest of the city. But when the city tried to file for bankruptcy on behalf of the hospital, the owners of CAH Acquisition filed a petition for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and the hospital was sent back under that case. Now attorneys for the city said a chance to gain receivership is gone.

"The minute they thought the town had some control and could save their hospital, and they were actually working on a plan to get financing and stabilize it, this bankruptcy was filed and the action was moved to North Carolina," said Christensen Law Group attorney Cori Loomis.

Attorneys predict that unlike other Chapter 11 bankruptcy cases, the assets in this case, including the building and operation of Fairfax Community, will be sold.

"That won’t occur for probably earliest eight months, latest, maybe a year and a half from now," said attorney Jeffrey Tate, also with Christensen Law Group. He said employees seeking wages they are owed can file a claim with the bankruptcy court, but they won't know what they'll be paid until the end.

For months, employees have been forced to leave and find other work after paychecks stopped coming while a few stuck around, working without pay. On Tuesday, a glimmer of hope when a North Carolina judge entered an order allowing certain pay for Fairfax hospital employees. Loomis explained that this is not an order forcing the company to pay employees, only allowing it. A company in bankruptcy must be granted permission by the court to spend any money.

However, the trustee must first obtain funding to pay those employees. That is now part of the agreement with Cohesive. The company will finance the hospital's supplies, utilities, and partial back payment of wages.

Cohesive president and founder Godwin Feh said he plans to pay those who stuck around, and those who return.

"I have asked the CEO there to get me a payroll list of the employees that decided to stay and are still actively working, and I will make sure they get at least 80 hours of pay tomorrow," Feh said on Thursday. News 4 reached him on the phone after he got out of the bankruptcy court hearing in North Carolina. Feh said that this Monday, he will hold an 11 a.m. meeting at the hospital hoping to re-hire employees. There he will discuss a plan to pay two pay periods to those who return and stick around. That's currently the amount of back pay that was granted by the court.

"I’m not going back," Renfro said. "I’m not going to sell my soul to the devil for 80 hours of pay." She said she's heard unsettling news from nursing friends at other hospitals run by Cohesive.

"‘They came in here with all these promises and everything started out great,'" recalls Renfro, "'and one by one my friends started disappearing.’ In my good conscience, I couldn’t do it, and stay there, and be happy knowing that there’s not control for the people of Fairfax in who takes care of them."

Feh said those are rumors, and aren't true.

"I know there have been some disgruntled employees that were terminated from Pawhuska, but it’s not the fact that we just come in and kicked them out," Feh said. "You know, we still, we have expectations. People have to do their jobs."

He said his company is only asking people to apply for their jobs again because they'll technically be working for a new company (Cohesive), but that there are not plans to put employees through an interview process. He also wanted to put to bed fears that the plan is to come in and replace old employees with his own staff, saying it simply wouldn't be feasible to move a hospital's worth of new employees into a small town like Fairfax.

"I think there is just a lot of negativity going out there. Prague can speak for itself. Prague and Haskell can speak for itself," he said of the other two hospitals Cohesive already took control of.

Renfro doesn't believe him.

"The whole goal of our battle was for the town of Fairfax to get our hospital back where we could control it and the direction that it went in, and the court didn’t do that," Renfro said. "If it was under Fairfax city control, I would be back there in a heartbeat, but it’s not."

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