Natchez Regional Medical Center set for renovation

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 9, 2003

Providing quality health care locally will ensure Natchez patients do not have to leave town for their medical needs. Natchez Regional Medical Center, with a recent $18 million renovation and other multi-million-dollar investments in major equipment completed, is poised to be the major health-care complex in Southwest Mississippi, its advocates say. The push forward by medical center leaders at the public hospital not only benefits those seeking the best in medical attention; the revived, still growing hospital will continue to be a major force in the area’s economy, with approximately 400 employees and a $13 million-plus payroll.

Anticipation grows now to take the next step; that is, replacing the 1960s Medical Arts Building complex owned by the hospital with a new, modern building for physician offices and expanded hospital services.

&uot;The hospital has been pursuing this for more than a year now,&uot; said Jack Houghton, the medical center’s chief executive officer. &uot;The old property is full, and we have doctors who have indicated their need for new office space and their wishes to build the new facility as close to the hospital as possible.&uot;

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Negotiations to provide a lease or sale between Adams County and the physicians-developer group who will build the new building are nearing completion after many months of fine-tuning the agreement by Marion Smith, attorney to the Adams County Board of Supervisors, and Walter Brown, hospital board attorney.

&uot;The county will sell the footprint of the building and provide an easement all around the property,&uot; Houghton said. &uot;The hospital and the county then would have first option should the building be sold.&uot;

Parking, which would become more extensive and convenient, would be treated as public parking, with an easement for the doctors building to use the parking area.

The building, now expected to be a three-story complex with an enclosed, air-conditioned walkway connecting it to the south side of the hospital, will cost developers more than $5 million, said Dr. Tom Weed, Natchez surgeon who has been a leader in getting the project under way.

&uot;Once we have the sale agreement in hand, then we can go forward with the development,&uot; Weed said, adding that he looks forward to working with supervisors in sealing the agreement. &uot;We need this office space. And it will be a huge investment in the community to build this building.&uot;

Lynwood Easterling, president of the board of supervisors, said the details of the agreement are near completion but have taken months to craft because the property is county owned.

&uot;It’s definitely close to becoming reality,&uot; Easterling said. &uot;It’s a great forward step for the community and for the hospital. It means we can bring in more doctors. Everyone is in favor of it.&uot;

The concept of physicians building offices next to hospitals is something that is happening all around the United States, Houghton said.

&uot;This is a win-win situation,&uot; he said. &uot;The hospital doesn’t have to come up with the capital for this important facility. And the doctors end up with an investment that will be worthwhile.&uot;

Having the new office building has direct impact on physician recruiting, Houghton said. And with the medical malpractice insurance crisis easing after legislation passed during the last session of the state Legislature, that recruiting is going well.

&uot;Health care is the biggest industry in the community,&uot; he said. &uot;And right now I have no place to put the specialists I’m recruiting. The new building will allow us to bring new specialists and primary care physicians to the community.&uot;

Several doctors are in negotiations with the hospital now, he said. They include physicians in the areas of cardiology, neurology and ear, nose and throat

Still, Mississippians should know that malpractice insurance woes have not gone away, Dr. Weed said. &uot;It may not be so much a crisis as an on-going burden.&uot;

Physicians, hospitals and other medical-related entities already existing in the state will continue to reel from the rates imposed both by the companies who remained in Mississippi during the crisis and by new insurance companies beginning to do business in the state.

The continued high rates reflect a judicial system clogged with hundreds of medical malpractice law suits filed hastily before Jan. 1, the date the new law went into effect, &uot;with no time or thought put into whether there is any merit in the cases,&uot; Houghton said.

For new physicians recruited to Mississippi, the new law makes a difference, however. &uot;And we may see some moderation for the rest of us in insurance rates in two to three years,&uot; Houghton said.

The proposed new office building will be set back from the location of the present medical office complex south of the hospital. &uot;The ramp up to the emergency department will be moved,&uot; Houghton said. &uot;A new ramp will be constructed coming up to the front, providing faster access to the emergency department and with less traffic problems.&uot;

In addition to suites for physicians, the new building will provide space for hospital services, as well, with the hospital leasing the space from the building owners.

&uot;One of the things we want to put in the new building is a women’s clinic, a mammography suite,&uot; Houghton said. &uot;It would include an area for education as well as for the mammography.&uot;

The physicians and other investors who take on the project will buy the property from the county, construct the building and maintain the building.

Easterling said the project speaks highly of confidence doctors have in the future of health care in Natchez.

&uot;I’m so proud to know there are physicians willing to take on this project,&uot; he said.