Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat
Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat

Unified medical system could greatly benefit area patients, doctors, economy

Published 12:01am Sunday, June 29, 2014

NATCHEZ — If the blueprint for health care changes through the pending sale of Natchez Regional Medical Center, the unified medical system created in the process will benefit the area, medical experts and hospital officials say.

The ongoing sale of NRMC to Natchez Community Hospital’s parent company would leave Community Health Systems owning and operating both facilities.

The company is keeping its long-term plans under wraps until a binding purchase agreement is signed, said Tami Galin, senior vice president of corporate communications and marketing for CHS.

Galin said the company’s “long-standing practice” is to not discuss potential acquisition activity until those documents are signed.

That agreement could be signed following a bankruptcy hearing set for July 3 in Natchez, when a bankruptcy court judge will have a status conference on the process of the hospital sale.

Even as the details of the sale are being ironed out, NRMC Chief Executive Officer Donny Rentfro said the possibility of a combined health care system in Natchez is exciting.

“If we look at the prize at the end, I think it’s a great one for our area,” Rentfro said. “The focus will be on high-quality care and the ability to recruit physicians into town.”

Miss-Lou facility

The court proceedings and financial details of the sale aren’t stopping local medical officials from looking at the benefits that could come from the two hospitals merging.

Dr. Roderick Givens, a Natchez radiation oncologist who operates Caring River Cancer Center, is in favor of a consolidated health care system and said he has the backing of more than 50 local doctors.

Givens serves as president of the Homochitto Valley Medical Society, which is a group consisting of local members of the Mississippi State Medical Association that meets quarterly to discuss health care related issues in the area.

The group has been in unanimous agreement for many years that one acute care hospital would be the best arrangement for health care for Natchez and Adams County.

“What it really boils down to is a more efficient and streamlined operation,” Givens said. “With the two-hospital systems like we currently have, it eliminates the capability of running an efficient operation because either entity is duplicating a lot of services that could be consolidated.”

Givens said maintaining two operating rooms that aren’t running at full capacity is an example of something that could easily be combined for maximum efficiency.

“To maintain all the equipment and have all these things going that are only being used 50 percent of the time at both locations isn’t efficient,” he said. “And Medicare is only paying for a certain amount per procedure, so you’re really looking at double the cost that could be saved.”

The recruitment of additional specialist physicians could also improve under one system, Givens said, and would lead to a higher level of specialty care offered in the area, which would reduce the perpetual pattern of “out migration.”

Givens described “out migration” as the flow of local residents who seek specialty care at other hospitals in cities such as Vicksburg, McComb, Jackson, Baton Rouge and Alexandria.

The reduction in patient outflow, Givens said, would improve the strength of the one health care system even more.

“That means patients could be treated for things right here at home as opposed to a two-hour drive,” Givens said. “With more resources available that means we can refer you locally to see a doctor that’s right down the street or even right down the hall.”

Keeping patients in Natchez by offering more services is one of the biggest benefits Rentfro said he sees from combining both facilities.

“Everyone in town wins when that happens,” Rentfro said. “People stay here, you don’t have the inconvenience of going out of town or you just save the money on a tank of gas when you don’t need to drive.

“With a unified health care system, folks that are currently leaving town for services won’t have to and I think that will alleviate some of the questions in people’s minds as to what’s going to happen with health care after all of this is done.”

In order for a unified health care system to offer more services, Rentfro said CHS executives would likely first have to “crunch the numbers” and see which services and programs would be feasible to operate in Natchez.

“They need to see what makes sense to offer here and how to deliver the appropriate services,” Rentfro said. “They’re in the final throes of these negotiations and afterward, I think we’re going to get into the fun and excitement of being able to focus on delivering that high quality care to our patients.”

Facility

The members of the Homochitto Valley Medical Society have agreed in years past that both hospitals, Givens said, have serious limitations in their physical plants and campus size that limit the capability of expansion.

That’s why they hope a new hospital structure would be built in Natchez following the sale.

“That opens up a whole bag of worms as to where are you going to put it, would you level these facilities to make enough land for a new facility or find a separate site?” Givens said. “I think that goes well beyond the scope of the next few years, so the practical thing would be to use the current space while keeping an eye on a new facility.”

In a 15-minute promotional video created last year to advocate the sale of the hospital, NRMC leaders discussed the possibility of the 53-year-old hospital being replaced by a new modern facility on the same property.

Even if CHS decided to build a new facility, Givens predicted construction would take roughly four to five years.

“In the short-term, I think the current facilities need to be maximized and that’s obviously going to take an evaluation of both facilities to see what equipment each one has and so on,” Givens said. “I think they need to look at a long-term plan of a new facility, but you also need something in the mean time.”

Big picture

Whether CHS offers services at two separate facilities or one, the implications for a unified health care system in Natchez could be substantial, Natchez Inc. Executive Director Chandler Russ said.

“Health care and immediate access to health care is of the utmost importance when we’re recruiting new industry,” Russ said. “Making sure we’ve got a major medical facility to serve the area is a big part of that process, and I believe they’ll accomplish that with this acquisition.”

Russ said he was excited to see what CHS, a company that operates 206 hospitals in 29 states, could bring to the table in Natchez.

“When you have an entity like that that has some national exposure and can help with doctor recruitment on a national scale, I think you have the potential to create a better health care system,” Russ said. “Any company with that kind of national draw, but that is also familiar with this market in particular is going to be beneficial.”

While the conversation of a consolidated health care system has been discussed since Givens moved to Natchez in 2001, he said seeing the light at the end of tunnel is refreshing.

“That’s been the discussion since I moved here, and I’m sure it was going on before I got here, but I think all the doctors have really started to realize the benefits of what that would mean for us here,” Givens said. “I think it’s a great opportunity for the county and the residents of this area.”