Arkansas Hospital Association: An Overview

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For over 80 years, the Arkansas Hospital Association (AHA) has viewed the healthiness of Arkansas’ hospitals as being vital to having a healthier state.

On its website,,  AHA lists its overall mission as being one that will work “for the betterment of hospitals by instituting spirited programs in education, government relations, research, and communication.”

By establishing this as its vision, AHA hopes to improve Arkansas’ healthcare system by promoting unity among its hospitals and by helping to make each hospital’s footprint in its service area more effective.

Through many fires and storms

“Since it was founded in 1929, AHA has acted as the eyes, ears, and voice of Arkansas hospitals, making a significant impact on our healthcare quality and status,” noted Phil E. Matthews, former chief executive officer, in a video produced for AHA’s 80th anniversary in 2009.

AHA has achieved much within the last few years. For example, the association was instrumental in getting the $1.6 billion allocated to Arkansas from the 1998 Tobacco Master Settlement Agreement earmarked for health-related purposes.

“With the Tobacco Settlement Act, we actually became the only state to put all of our tobacco funds for new health programs,” Dr. Joe Thompson, Arkansas surgeon general, said in the video. “And the Hospital Association was critical as we went around to the cities to host the team that was advocating for those funds.”

At the time, Dr. Thompson noted that 2009 statistics had shown a 45-percent reduction in youth smoking and a 20-percent reduction in adult smoking for Arkansas, and he largely credits AHA for this success. Furthermore, AHA was instrumental in implementing a new law that made all hospital campuses smoke-free.

By trumpeting a tax on soda pop, AHA also led the charge in reducing the number of uninsured children in the state, a statistic that had dropped from 20 percent to less than seven percent in 2009. The soda-pop tax has provided a long-term, stable source of revenue for the Medicaid program that enabled this reduction to happen, Dr. Thompson said.

Additionally, AHA was instrumental in establishing a program that enhanced Medicaid reimbursements, and it fought for legislation that established a statewide trauma system in 2009.

“I think what we’re seeing is hospitals begin to develop and become trauma centers,” Robert “Bo” Ryall Jr., current CEO, said. “[This is] very important for Arkansas, because we lead the nation in highway fatalities. We’ve seen that number decrease already and as we move to the future, we’re going to see more hospitals become involved, more lives saved, and we’re going to have a bright future for the state of Arkansas.”

Strength of leadership

AHA’s leadership is well-respected and highly praised by its member providers.

“When I look back on the history, at least during my time, the history with the association, I’ve always had great respect for the leadership that we had, the top person, and the team that that person put together to make a strong leadership group for the association,” stated Russell D. Harrington Jr.,  president and CEO of Baptist Health System in Little Rock. “That’s the most important thing that an association can have, great leadership, and we really enjoy that in Arkansas.”

Acording to Tom Harbuck, executive vice president of Jefferson Regional Medical Center in Pine Bluff, AHA played a vital role in implementing the Arkansas Health Information Exchange.

“One of the exciting features of the exchange is it’s going to really eliminate some of the barriers that had existed before between hospitals in sharing information,” Harbuck explained prior to the implementation. “We’re going to be able to use technology and move patient-centric information from one hospital to another in a secure environment and really stay centric to our goal of a better patient experience, improved quality of care, and gained efficiencies.”

Kristy Estrem, president of Mercy Hospital Berryville (formerly known as St. John’s Hospital), said the AHA leads the way in quality.

“Working and networking with the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care,also Medicaid, they were able to have a program that provided incentives to hospitals who met certain quality thresholds and to be incentivized and have that availability to us is not only helpful to the hospitals, but it’s good for the patient,” she stated.

Estrem added that AHA provides a unified core for the voices of rural and urban hospitals, helping them to join together to affect change statewide.

Involving membership in the future
In the video, Ryall candidly noted, “The rules and regulations are coming. And the devil is in the details. It will be over the next 10 years that the details will come out on healthcare reform and its true effect on hospitals.”

As a result, he feels that it’s important for the association to have good relations with the state’s congressional delegation in order to shape the regulations so they’re favorable to hospitals.

“The public is going to play an important role in healthcare reform,” Harbuck stated. “It’s going to play an important role in how we utilize technology. The advent of the smartphone is giving people access to information they’ve never had before, but likewise, we’re able to take these devices and put them in the hands of physicians, put them in the hands of nurses, and put them in the hands of clinicians that work in our environment and utilize this technology in a very mobile environment, in a very meaningful environment, and exchange information so that they have it at their hand, at their fingertips, at the time they need to care for that patient, at the time they need to make that decision, at the time that it’s most important. “

Matthews said AHA is no stronger than its membership as a whole.

“It is absolutely essential that every member hospital be involved and take part in AHA activities, have their say-so about what’s going on in the business, because we need every hospital to remain strong.”

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