NRMC needs common sense answers

Published 12:05am Sunday, November 3, 2013

Six months ago, a handful of Adams County Supervisors first admitted being approached by a company to consider selling county owned Natchez Regional Medical Center.

That contact set into motion a chain of events that are still playing out today. Supervisors believed then what they were doing was in the best interests of the taxpayers they represent and the health care needs of generations to come.

The sales process and the conflicting signals provided through the process thus far are difficult to fathom for NRMC owners — the citizens of Adams County.

Supervisors rehired the consultant group that failed to find a buyer when the hospital was put up for sale in 2008. The move was a questionable one for many residents, but most people in town seem to agree that the community’s health care needs would be better served with one unified hospital system.

The hospital’s leadership, which initially seemed not interested in the sales process, jumped on board — presumably to help control the process to their liking.

State law requires a study to be done to determine if the public’s best interest would be served by a sale. Before the study was even done, the consultant was hired, the timing of which seemed curious.

Then, in an effort to apparently further control the process, the hospital board’s attorney obtained special permission from the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office to use a special “stalking horse bidder” process.

In doing so, the hospital, with the county’s blessing, decided that the stalking horse bidders must be not-for-profit hospital companies, thus bumping Natchez Community Hospital’s owner, Health Management Associates out of the process for now.  The sale of a public asset should not exclude anyone, especially not one of the county’s top taxpayers, which Natchez Community Hospital almost certainly is. Later, in a public hearing on the sale, the now former hospital administrator said the hospital was burning through cash at such a fast rate that it would be forced to close in two years if the hospital were not sold.

Then, in getting county supervisors to approve the hospital’s budget, NRMC’s administrators said they facility expected to net $4.5 million. The chairman of the hospital’s board of trustees also confirmed the facility was using funds obtained in a lawsuit settlement with its former management company to help cover payroll.

Only a small handful of people on the inside seem comfortable with all of the conflicting signals they’re sending up.

The stockholder-citizens’ only hope is for Adams County Supervisors to demand answers. They should not micromanage the hospital’s board, but supervisors have a responsibility to find out if the hospital is being properly led and if hospital assets — cash, the hospital’s brand, etc., are being properly utilized.

County leaders must demand immediate answers to pertinent questions before the sales process goes one inch further.

How much cash does the hospital have on hand?

How quickly is the hospital burning through that cash?

What changes, if any, are hospital managers making to stop bleeding cash and set the facility on the right course again — independent of the sales process?

After the hospital’s bankruptcy a few years ago, led by an interim CEO who had no vast amount of CEO experience — like the most recent hospital CEO claimed he did — NRMC seemed to thrive.

Perhaps that’s the solution — less grand plans and searching for a deep-pocketed buyer to come riding in on a white horse and more focus on down-to-earth, common sense business plans.

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