USDA says it will support hospital

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 19, 2006

NATCHEZ &8212; Officials with the state offices of USDA Rural Development were in Natchez Monday to assure the county hospital board of their support in upcoming refinancing and capital improvement projects.

Natchez Regional Medical Center is seeking $28 million to refinance old bonds, pay off some existing debts, establish a rainy-day fund and finance capital projects.

Mississippi Development Bank is expected to approve issuing of approximately $17 million in bonds for refinancing and paying off debts.

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USDA Rural Development will fund the remaining amount, which could be from $8 million to $11 million and will go to capital improvements, said Natchez Regional CEO Jeff Wesselman.

&8220;This will allow us to operate as a normal business and to recruit physicians,&8221; Wesselman said.

The refinancing of bonds and consolidation of debt will provide better interest rates and increase cash flow.

The medical center has struggled financially in recent years but has seen improvements in this fiscal year, Wesselman said.

&8220;This time last year, we had lost $1.5 million. This year, it&8217;s $14,000,&8221; he said.

Nick Walters, director of the state Rural Development Office, told board members he and his staff are &8220;100 percent committed to finding what you need.&8221;

Money is available, he said. Mississippi, because of Hurricane Katrina relief, has an extra $125 million for USDA programs, Walters said.

&8220;And it&8217;s important enough for me to be here today to tell you eyeball to eyeball that this will happen.&8221;

Wesselman said the USDA loan should enable the hospital to purchase a 64-slice CT scanner, a new hospital-wide digital imaging system and refurbishing of patient rooms.

Walters said the loan, with an interest rate of 4 to 5 percent, could be approved within 90 days.

The USDA has 48 different programs, he said. The hospital loan will be through the community facilities program. &8220;This is the first of its type for us to do in Natchez during my term,&8221; Walters said.

&8220;What makes this unique is that we end up purchasing the bonds; so it&8217;s not on the county&8217;s books, not a part of their bond indebtedness,&8221; he said. &8220;But this is not a grant. The hospital will have to pay it back.&8221;

USDA would not consider the loan if Natchez Regional did not have its financial house in order, he said.

Walters told the board he is leaving USDA to enter private business but that his leaving will &8220;in no way affect this project. It doesn&8217;t matter who is sitting in the chair.&8221;

In other board of trustee business, Dan Bland, chairman, said Natchez Regional plans to join a Mississippi Hospital Association lawsuit protesting plans for a 2 percent tax on gross hospital income announced recently by Gov. Haley Barbour.

Kay Ketchings, marketing director, shared figures gathered from a California report that show Natchez Community Hospital as the &8220;most expensive&8221; hospital in Mississippi.

Aaron Patten updated the board on plans to construct a heliopad behind Natchez Regional. &8220;In my tenure, this is one of the greatest projects we&8217;ve had here,&8221; he said.

Bland said the pad will support helicopters from Houston, Texas, as well as from New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Jackson and other nearby medical centers.