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Important questions remain on hospital issue

Adams County is working hard to sell its largest asset, Natchez Regional Medical Center. The question is: Should it be sold?

Last week, NRMC came before the Adams County Supervisors and the public to make their case for selling the county-owned facility.

Reports of the meeting were ominous. The hospital’s CEO Bill Heburn said the facility would close within two years if not sold.

How’s that for motivation to sell?

Heburn and the hospital’s board of trustees have painted a picture for the public that the hospital is doomed if it cannot find a buyer equivalent of a sugar daddy — and quickly.

The county hired a consultant — a process required by state law when considering the sale of a public hospital — to determine if the hospital should be sold.

Interestingly, the consultants wrote that a sale or a lease might be the best option for the hospital long-term. Clearly, the powers that be read what they wanted to read in the feasibility study and ignored the rest — like the option not to sell.

That seems par for the course, as the hospital sales process has simply felt rushed. Decisions are being made with little public discussion about what the outcomes should be and what other options exist.

Late last week, a local physicians’ group finally stepped up and said they believe having one hospital in town — as opposed to the current two we have — is ideal. But the physicians don’t want to become a “feeder” hospital for a larger hospital system.

Their letter to the local hospital administrators and county leaders is published separately today as a Top of the Morning article.

Thankfully, the physicians are finally speaking up a bit about the sales process.

Logically, most of the anticipated, potential buyers of Natchez Regional wouldn’t be interested were it not for the likelihood that they could more easily “feed” patients to their larger hospitals nearby.

Furthermore the “carrot” being tossed around — namely that a new buyer will drop $150 million to construct an entirely new hospital facility — seems a bit of a stretch. Paying off such an investment would require a considerable amount of profit over many, many years.

In the last several months, the public has learned the following:

-The hospital’s current administrators report the hospital and its medical foundation collectively lost more than $1 million last year and continue to burn through cash. The sales process is likely to add to that this year as the contract with the consulting group managing the sales process is expected to cost between $300,000 and $500,000.

-After a long legal battle, the hospital won what is believed to be a multi-million-dollar settlement with its former management company.

-Although terms of the settlement were not publicly disclosed, hospital administrators recently admitted they’ve had to use some of the funds to meet payroll obligations.

What we haven’t heard, however, includes:

-What the current management is doing to curtail expenses and improve cash flow.

-Exactly how the Natchez Medical Foundation lost approximately $3.3 million in 2012, while the hospital proper earned $2.2 million in profit.

-Was a lease or management contract ever considered?

-Would converting the hospital from a public, government-owned one, to a non-profit be an option?

Lots of questions remain about the process, but the real challenge for residents is to know whom to trust to provide accurate answers.


Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or kevin.cooper@natchezdemocrat.com.