OKEECHOBEE — Because the state determined there were not enough hospice services being provided in St. Lucie, Martin and Okeechobee counties, they opened it up for another hospice to get that region. Nine different hospices applied for the territory, including Chapters, but a for-profit hospice won it. Because Okeechobee is grouped with St. Lucie and Martin counties, the government looks at the three counties as a whole and that whole needs more hospice care, which, according to Executive Director of Hospice of Okeechobee Gail Gerntrup, is true.
Unfortunately, when a new hospice is awarded a certificate of need — similar to a contract to work in the area — they are not only eligible to work in St. Lucie and Martin counties where the need is. They are also able to set up shop in Okeechobee where the population cannot support a second hospice.
Hospice of Okeechobee hoped the new company would allow them to continue to fulfill the needs in Okeechobee while they concentrated on Martin and St. Lucie Counties, where there actually was a need for more hospice services. When Chapters made its bid, that was what they said they would do, but they were not chosen.
Several years ago, Treasure Coast Hospice worked in Okeechobee. Ms. Gerntrup explained that with Okeechobee’s population of approximately 40,000, there were, and still are, about 20 residents each day eligible for hospice care. The two hospices found themselves each with about half of the patients. She said it takes 20 to 25 patients per day for a hospice to sustain itself, so neither hospice was able to make ends meet.
It was not too much of a problem for Treasure Coast Hospice because it could count on income from the other counties, but Hospice of Okeechobee operates only here, and found it very difficult. Finally, Treasure Coast Hospice decided to close its operation in Okeechobee and concentrate on the other two counties where the need was greater and leave Okeechobee County to Hospice of Okeechobee. This worked out perfectly because Treasure Coast Hospice was able to save the cost of the office and staff over here, and Hospice of Okeechobee ended up with all the hospice patients in the area.
With the arrival of the for-profit hospice, VITAS, in town, once again the 20 or so patients could be divided between the two. So far, most patients and families are still choosing Hospice of Okeechobee, she said.
Founded in 1983 by Fran Syfrett, Dorothy Bulger and Paul Buxton, Hospice of Okeechobee provides care and support for those with life-limiting illness, focusing on keeping the patient as comfortable as possible by controlling pain and other physical symptoms. According to its website, Hospice of Okeechobee also helps with “end-of-life decision making, meeting life goals, enhancing family relationships and promoting comfort.” It offers medications, personal care, nursing care, social workers, chaplains, a volunteer team to help with things such as errands or just to sit and talk to patients and their families, bereavement support for up to 13 months, on-call support, a hospice residence, inpatient care, continuous care in the home and respite care. Patients are eligible for hospice care if they have been diagnosed with a life-limiting/incurable illness, their plan of care has been changed from aggressive to comfort, and they live in Okeechobee County. Hospice care is paid for by Medicare, Medicaid or by insurance in many cases, but Hospice of Okeechobee accepts patients regardless of their ability to pay. There are additional fees for room and board at the Hamrick House, but the fee can be assessed on a sliding scale if necessary.
“Hospice of Okeechobee was formed to meet the needs of local people. We know them and understand them,” she said. “Any other agency coming here is coming from somewhere else and will do their best to meet the needs of the people here, but they won’t be Hospice of Okeechobee, and despite their best intentions, they will be taking business away from Hospice of Okeechobee, which it needs if it is going to keep the doors open.”
Choosing a hospice is the choice of the patients and their families, not the doctor or the hospital, although referrals often come from doctors. When the time comes for your family to choose a hospice, Ms. Gertrup hopes local residents will consider Hospice of Okeechobee. They are your neighbors, and they truly care about your family members.