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Natchez Regional bankruptcy legislation filed

NATCHEZ — The bill that will allow Natchez Regional Medical Center to file for bankruptcy has been filed with the state House of Representatives and awaits committee action before it can go to the floor to vote.

Sponsored by Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, and co-sponsored by Rep. Angela Cockerham, D-Magnolia, Rep. Sam Mims, R-McComb and Rep. America Chuck Middleton, D-Port Gibson, House Bill 1449 is short, fewer than 170 words including its digest and section headers.

“The board of trustees of Natchez Regional Medical Center … is authorized, in its discretion, to petition for relief from debts and financial obligations of the hospital under Chapter 9 of Title 11, United States Code, and to take any actions that the hospital board of trustees determines may be necessary for such purpose,” the bill states.

The bill was referred to the local and private legislation committee after it was filed Tuesday. House Bill 1449 will have to pass both houses of the legislature and receive the governor’s signature before the county-owned hospital can officially file for bankruptcy.

The decision by the hospital’s board of trustees to file for Chapter 9 bankruptcy was announced publicly last week, when hospital officials said declines in revenue had put the hospital in a position of having $3 million more in financial liabilities than assets.

The spokesman appointed by the hospital board — the board president, the Rev. Leroy White — and the board’s attorney did not return phone messages left Wednesday regarding the legislation.

Adams County District 1 Supervisor Mike Lazarus said he had not been given any guidance on when the legislation might move forward.

“I do not know anything about that,” he said. “They had full authority to file bankruptcy without us, and (the supervisors) have not been told about when this will happen.”

The supervisors are planning to meet with the hospital trustees at 5 p.m. today in order to discuss the hospital’s current status, Lazarus said.

“We are just pushing for more transparency on this thing,” he said. “I know the public is frustrated, but really it is basically out of our hands. We don’t want to harm the hospital in any way — that is not our goal — but I think it is time we let everybody know what is going on, including the supervisors.

“It is not a time to lose our cool. We just need to sit down and work through this. We need to keep moving forward.”

District 2 Supervisor David Carter said he is eager to get an update on the status of the bankruptcy move, the ongoing effort to sell the hospital and to find out when a request from the supervisors to get a detailed briefing about the hospital’s finances will be met.

The supervisors need to be updated about NRMC weekly, Carter said.

“Whenever there is a meeting (of the hospital board), somebody from the board of supervisors needs to be in it,” Carter said. “We have been meeting every month or two, and so much happens in the middle. Everybody needs to stay informed and in the loop on this.”

Lazarus said in some ways the supervisors have been powerless when it comes to getting information about the hospital.

“If there is a message I want to get out to the public, it is that we haven’t been driving this train,” he said. “If I could do something with the hospital, I would.”

The meeting this evening will be in the boardroom at the supervisors’ offices on State Street.

Supervisors Darryl Grennell, Calvin Butler and Angela Hutchins could not be reached for comment Wednesday afternoon.

NRMC opened in 1960 as Jefferson Davis Memorial Hospital. Its $2.4 million construction was underwritten by an $800,000 local contribution and state and federal funds.

It has been financially independent since 1974 and does not receive 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.

The county board of supervisors appoints the hospital’s board of trustees. The seven volunteer trustees serve a three-year term.