A scene straight out of the Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” in Pine this week illuminated the challenges and joys of small-town life and old-fashioned medicine.
When Pine’s only doctor faced eviction from the community-donated medical offices in which she has practiced for a decade, an outpouring of support from grateful patients during a community meeting on Monday bought more time for a happy ending.
Beset by the abrupt departure of her accountant and a family crisis, Dr. Lisa York had fallen $6,000 behind on rent and utility payments to the non-profit Pine Strawberry Health Services Inc. board, which operates the donated medical building she rents.
“She’s like one of the poorest doctors in the world,” said Nick Berezenko, a patient and Arizona Highways photographer, “because she’s like an old-time, rural country doctor, who spends an inordinate amount of time with each patient. She really cares about her patients.”
In the office on Wednesday, Dr. York said she’d been overwhelmed by patients who showed up to lend support — and offer money. “It really was like a scene from ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’” said Dr. York, with a catch in her throat, referring to the movie in which townspeople pour into Jimmy Stewart’s home to offer up crumpled dollars to save his town-building Savings and Loan from foreclosure. “One patient wanted to give me her car insurance payment. Someone handed me what they had in their pocket. I told them, ‘you’ve already done what I needed.’ They were awesome.”
Some vented their anger at the near-eviction. “This is just so heartless and cruel, to not take into account the personal tragedies Lisa has been going through and give her any slack on that,” said Berezenko. “I think they just care about getting something done that they feel will benefit them financially rather than the community as a whole, who loves their doctor.”
However, Health Services board president Michael Blaes said, “She’s way behind on her bills. We’re just landlords for a building that’s run as a small non-profit to keep a medical practitioner up here in the area. There’s been an agreement (with York). I really shouldn’t go into that. We’ll see if she sticks to the agreement. If she can get herself current, then we’ve got no problem. We don’t have the money to cover the bills if she doesn’t pay.”
Some 30 years ago, a resident donated the land. Community donations paid for the building and set up the non-profit corporation to operate it to serve the community’s medical needs. Many rural communities struggle to keep doctors in town, so residents hoped the low rent on the office space would induce a doctor to stay.
Some residents raised questions about the board’s motives and organization, since the corporation apparently stopped filing required annual financial statements with the Arizona Corporation Commission several years ago.
However, Blaes said that was merely an oversight the board is scrambling to correct. “We have been filing things, just not the right things. Because everything went to electronics, that got missed.”
Ironically enough, Dr. York’s difficulties stemmed from similar confusion. Her accountant left abruptly late last year, without completing all the normal billings. By the time she sorted out the tangle, she was several months behind on the billings — and payments. She has money in the pipeline, but none in the bank. By the time she grasped the extent of the problem, she’d fallen far behind in the $500 monthly rental payments and the up to $1,000 monthly utilities payments.
Part of her problem stems from her compassionate billing practices. She readily treats patients who can’t pay and sometimes waives co-payments and deductibles for struggling patients. “A lot of people have to pay big deductibles at the start of the year, so that can slow things down. There’s money out there. I’m expecting to be fine. I just needed some time,” she said.
Compounding the problem was the serious and mysterious illness of her daughter and the death of her mother, which required repeated trips to the Valley and Tucson.
Dr. York is convinced that only the outpouring of support deterred the board from acting on the eviction. “I have all kinds of theories on what’s going on, but I don’t know what the truth is. When I came back from my mother’s funeral he (Blaes) handed me the eviction notice and I said, ‘really?’ and he said, ‘It’s business — nothing personal.’”
Dr. York readily admits that she loves treating patients, but struggles with the business side of operating a solo practice in a small town. “I’m definitely not in it because I’m a good businesswoman. I love medicine.”
She’s famous for taking so long with each patient that she runs far behind schedule. She’s also famous for tenaciously tackling a baffling illness and coming up with a treatment and diagnosis, which sometimes require unconventional therapies and alternative medicine approaches.
“They even instituted a system where they would get so far behind they would just say, ‘we’ll give you a call’ when she’s ready for you,” said Berezenko. Some people might be upset by that, but everyone said, ‘no, it’s worth it. I know she’s going to be thorough and she’s going to care and she’s not going to run me through to get to the next patient.’”
Blaes said it’s ironic that no one ever comes to the board meetings of the five-member volunteer board, but now the board members face such a flurry of rumors and criticism. “I’ve been on that board for five years and no one ever comes to the annual meetings. It’s been tough to keep people involved. But everyone’s showing tons of interest now. There seems to be an awful lot of bad rumors going around: None of it’s true.”
But for Dr. York, it remains all about the patients and a show of support that in a sense, reversed the role of healer. She hit bottom going into the meeting facing the eviction, but left lifted up.
“It’s huge. I’ve known they were good people all along, of course, but I don’t even know how to tell you how it felt. Very overwhelming. Very touching. Very emotional. I still have people coming in today saying, ‘so sorry that I couldn’t make it into the meeting.’ We have a really amazing community up here.”