Community was misled by hospital board

Published 12:03 am Sunday, February 9, 2014

Like many local residents, news last week that Natchez Regional Medical Center was seeking to file bankruptcy came as a bit of a shock.

That the publicly owned hospital was struggling to pay its bills shouldn’t have been a shock to us, though.

We’ve all seen signs of it coming for month, if we’re honest with ourselves.

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The shock should come when we realize that, at least collectively, the community trusted the people in charge at the hospital to manage the hospital efficiently and alert the owners — county residents — if they saw trouble ahead.

Despite massive efforts to avoid having to explain the truth to the public — using a loophole in the Mississippi Public Records Act that allows public hospitals to operate in the shadows — hopefully the true state of the hospital may soon come out if the bankruptcy filing is allowed. As a public entity, the hospital cannot simply raise its hand, hire a lawyer and file bankruptcy. It must obtain special permission from the Mississippi Legislature.

It’s amazing when you stop and think about just how much has occurred with the hospital in just more than a year.

First, in January 2013, NRMC finalized an out-of-court settlement with its former management company, settling for an undisclosed amount of money — allegedly a multi-million-dollar figure.

A few months later, in the spring, a would-be buyer allegedly approached county supervisors. I’ve always believed that to be the owners of cross-town competitor Natchez Community Hospital, but who knows for sure. Strategically, it would make sense that the competing hospital would seek to buy the competitor, then merge the two into one, likely more profitable, facility.

At that point the county supervisors and the NRMC board of trustees began talking and entertaining the idea of a sale.

Soon after, the sales process — which is spelled out clearly in state law — began.

Somewhere along the line it appears the hospital board either decided or were led to believe that a better deal could be had if they excluded so-called for-profit hospitals from the initial bid process, thus knocking out Natchez Community’s parent company.

In early September, the hospital’s board admitted they had been dipping into the settlement funds to make payroll and pay other bills.

A day or two later, then-CEO Bill Heburn declared publicly the situation was so dire that the hospital had to be sold or it would close in two years.

Weeks later when supervisors questioned hospital leaders about whether or not they were changing staffing to be prepared for lower patient volumes — something hospital leaders had pointed to as a likelihood of the Obamacare laws — hospital leaders ducked the question, citing recent high patient census numbers.

Then, seemingly week after week, the public was promised time and again that buyers were interested, alluding to a pending sale.

As part of the process, hospital leaders even had the gall to spend some of what little cash they apparently had on a slick video purportedly used in the sales process. The video, as of last week, was still on the hospital’s website. It included a clear inference that a sale would results in “40 to 50 new doctors” and a brand spanking new hospital facility.

The people leading the hospital — as well-intentioned as they may have been — misled the community with grand hopes while they knew they were losing money with each passing month.

That’s truly shameful. But what is shocking is that more people didn’t question it before now.


Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at 601-445-3539 or