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Supervisors mull sale of Natchez Regional Medical Center

NATCHEZ — A few years’ time apparently can make a sick, unattractive hospital suddenly attractive to would-be suitors.

Less than five years after Adams County failed to find a buyer for county-owned Natchez Regional Medical Center, at least one interested buyer recently emerged.

The potential buyer approached several Adams County supervisors, at least two of whom met with the buyer’s representatives.

“It’s an idea that we’re entertaining,” District 5 Supervisor Calvin Butler said, regarding the possibility of selling the hospital. “We need to do a study of it to understand the feasibility.”

Butler said he and District 1 Supervisor Mike Lazarus recently met with representatives of a for-profit hospital firm that expressed interest in buying NRMC.

“If we can sell the hospital and still have it where it can benefit the community, the rates don’t go up crazy where people can’t afford to go and the new company can bring in some more doctors, it could be good,” Butler said. “If we could do that and dump the liability off the county, it would be a great idea. It could be a win-win.”

Butler said his first priorities are quality health care and protecting the approximately 300 hospital employees.

“I want the community to get the best health care possible,” he said.

Lazarus said it’s too early to tell what will come from the inquiry, but that it wasn’t the first time the county has been approached in the last couple of years.

“They approached us a year ago, but we weren’t really interested in talking about it then,” he said. “A lot of counties have been selling their hospitals.

“I’ve heard from some people that it’s difficult to be a standalone hospital any more.”

The latest discussion occurred “just a few days ago,” Lazarus said.

“We’re listening. I’m always going to listen and consider anything that may be for the betterment of the county,” he said. “We called the hospital board’s chairman to let them know about the inquiry.”

District 2 Supervisor David Carter said he was aware of the interest, but cautioned that any decisions would need to take careful consideration.

“I don’t think it’s something we need to rush into,” he said. “It’s a big decision, so I don’t think it’s something we need to rush. You always have to keep your options open.”

All three supervisors said uncertainties related to the 2009 national health care reform have them worried about the future.

“Certainly there’s a question mark about what the future of health care is going to be,” Carter said. “A big question mark. Would (a sale) help us or would it hurt us?”

Lazarus and Butler said they’d heard that the hospital’s administrator and board of trustees had either been approached by would-be suitors or were actively seeking buyers, but could not confirm that.

“We don’t know what to expect,” Butler said. “We have to rely on the hospital board to tell us what’s going on.”

Lazarus said beyond the supervisors’ communication to the hospital board about the interested buyer that approached the county, he’s unaware of any shared communication from the hospital board.

Selling the hospital could be a windfall for the county, Lazarus and Butler said.

In addition to the potential sales price, if the buyer were a for-profit company, the property would return the tax rolls and generate a significant amount of annual property tax.

“If we’re going to sell it, we’d really rather sell it to a private organization because that’s probably $300,000 to $400,000 in taxes a year, but that’s just a guess,” Butler said.

Previously the hospital board of trustees’ attorney Walter Brown said a sale of the hospital would require the completion of a feasibility study and a public hearing prior to selling the facility.

Natchez Regional was put up for sale in late 2008 after the hospital experienced financial problems that ultimately led to its 2009 bankruptcy filing.

The 2008 sales process yielded no buyers.

Shortly after the bankruptcy filing, NRMC sued its former management company, Quorum Health Resources, for mismanagement and sought $42 million in damages.

That lawsuit was settled for an undisclosed amount of money.

Messages left Thursday for Natchez Regional CEO Bill Heburn were not returned by late Thursday. The person answering the phone in his office said Heburn was in a meeting.

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