Hospice of Okeechobee will soon have competition

OKEECHOBEE — Hospice is not a service one usually thinks of as a business, but in reality, explained Gail Gerntrup, CEO of Hospice of Okeechobee, a hospice is a business just as Winn-Dixie and Publix are businesses, and not all hospices are the same. People tend to think hospice is one big company and Hospice of Okeechobee is just a branch of that big company, but actually, each hospice is a separate entity, much like the grocery stores.

Shopping at Winn-Dixie does not help Publix stay in business, and vice versa.

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 Ms. Gerntrup, is true. Unfortunately, when a new hospice is awarded a certificate of need — similar to a contract to work in the area — they won’t just be eligible to work in St. Lucie and Martin counties where the need is. They will also be able to set up shop in Okeechobee where the population cannot support a second hospice.

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.

Unfortunately, that is about to change with the arrival of a new hospice in town, and once again the 20 or so patients could be divided between the two.

When the new hospice opens, Okeechobee residents will have a choice to make. Ms. Gerntrup was quick to say the other hospices are run by good people and do a good job.

She is not in any way trying to disparage them, “but they are not from Okeechobee. They are not your neighbors. Hospice of Okeechobee was formed to meet the needs of local people.

We know them and understand them,” she said. “Whoever comes here will be 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.”

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.

Ms. Gertrup said there are some things people think hospice does which it does not do:

• Hospice does not starve patients or deny them water. She explained this is a common misconception. As the body readies itself for the end of life, it no longer desires food or water. It is actively drying itself out and slowing down the internal workings such as the bowels and intestines. Forcing water into a person by means of an IV or any other means is actually harming a person and goes against what the body is trying to do. Often the water ends up in the person’s lungs, and forcing food on that person can cause severe abdominal pain.

• Hospice does not overdose patients with morphine and kill them. Many people seem to believe this because they see the patient receive pain medication often. But, Ms. Gertrup explained, what is actually happening is the patients are receiving the smallest amount of medication possible to keep them pain-free but still functional. They are given this small dosage more often to try to keep them at that perfect level of no pain but still cognizant as long as this is possible.

When the time comes for your family to choose a hospice, Ms. Gertrup hopes you will consider Hospice of Okeechobee. They are your neighbors, and they truly care about your family members.

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