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Public gets its say on hospital sale Wednesday

NATCHEZ — Members of the public will have an opportunity this week to voice their opinions about the proposed sale of Natchez Regional Medical Center.

A public hearing about the matter — a legal requirement before the hospital can officially be put on the market — will be 10 a.m. Wednesday at the Adams County Board of Supervisors’ offices on State Street.

Following the public hearing, the supervisors will have the option of adopting a resolution stating the county’s reasons for seeking to do so.

The resolution will have to be published — along with the minimum required terms and the evaluation process for how possible bidders will be vetted — once a week for at least three consecutive weeks. By law, the notice will have to be made at least 21 days before the sale.

But the law also allows for voters to file a petition calling for an election to determine if the sale should go forward. The petition will require either 1,500 votes or 20 percent of qualified electors of the area, whichever is less. If no petition is filed, the sale can go forward without an election.

Supervisors President Darryl Grennell said a petition calling for an election is the prerogative of the people of Adams County.

“If they say they want to have a referendum, they can certainly have that,” he said.

The NRMC board of trustees advised to the Adams County Board of Supervisors earlier this summer that they believe the best interests of the county and the area’s health care consumers will be best protected if the hospital is sold or leased. At the time, the Rev. Leroy White — the NRMC trustees chair — said the oncoming implementation of the Affordable Care Act and the changing nature of the medical industry as a whole had forced the issue.

“I think the majority of people in Adams County realize that health care is changing, and it is going to be difficult for a county hospital to maintain those services,” Grennell said.

“From day one I have been a strong proponent of a co-owned hospital, but I am also a realist—things have changed, and with this new health care law that is going into effect, it is going to be very difficult for the hospital to continue on its current course.”

The first step in the sale process was to have a feasibility study completed to determine if the sale of the county-owned hospital was in the best interest of the area or will safeguard the community’s health interests. The supervisors heard the recommendation from the feasibility study to sell the hospital in late July.

The accounting firm the Horne Group completed the study, which examined patient utilization data, the hospital’s competitive advantages and disadvantages, staffing patterns, financial balances and organizational configuration, among other things.

But even before the feasibility study was completed, the hospital had hired Healthcare Management Partners — a consulting firm that previously reorganized the hospital and tried unsuccessfully to sell it out of bankruptcy in 2008 — to start working on the necessary background processes to speed the sale should Horne recommend it. White said HMP was hired in part because of its past associations with the hospital.

HMP Chief Executive Office Scott Phillips — who was an administrator at NRMC for a year while the company was reorganizing the hospital — said in July during the interim between the presentation of the feasibility study and the public hearing the company would be developing financial models and studies of hospital needs for the market.

Opened in 1960 as Jefferson Davis Memorial Hospital, the then-$2.4 million construction of the hospital was underwritten by state and federal dollars as well as $800,000 in county funds.

The hospital has been financially independent since 1974 and receives no tax support, but is backed by a 5-mill standby tax that the Mississippi Development Bank required the hospital to get in 2006 when it asked for the MDB to reissue its revenue bond.