Following lengthy public discussion, the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors voted Monday to seek proposals from qualified entities for a potential study of OCH Regional Medical Center’s current and projected health care capabilities.
The board’s decision only authorizes advertisements to seek such proposals and does not approve the analysis itself.
Monday’s vote was taken in open session near the end of the board’s agenda, a point in which most public attendees had left the meeting.
District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer, District 5 Supervisor Joe Williams and District 1 Supervisor John Montgomery voted in favor of the motion, while Board President Marvell Howard and District 4 Supervisor Daniel Jackson cast ‘no’ votes.
Analysis is required by state law prior to any sale or lease of a public hospital. Besides last night’s move, the board has taken no official action to sell or lease the hospital.
But you couldn’t tell that judging by the large pro-OCH turnout gathered in the county courthouse Monday.
If any residents in favor of selling or leasing the hospital were present during the meeting, you couldn’t see them when an overwhelming majority of their opponents stood in solidarity of keeping the hospital in county control.
Comment periods during the early portion of the meeting and following former Starkville Alderman Frank Davis’ presentation on a grassroots movement to preserve local hospital control drew thoughts and reactions from residents with direct ties to the hospital and some who said they were there only because family members used the system’s services. The crowd cheered numerous times after pro-OCH statements, and one doctor was almost reduced to tears when he tried to tell supervisors how special the area is with OCH as its community hospital.
Public comments were mainly directed at Trainer, the self-admitted advocate for improving county health care possibilities. Residents pushed the supervisor for one main answer: Why?
When Steve Parvin asked Trainer why he wants to sell the hospital now, the supervisor countered by saying the county “couldn’t put the cart in front of the horse.”
Trainer said the scheduled July 9 educational session with Richard Cowart, a representative of Nashville’s Baker Donelson firm, would answer questions about the potential of expanded health care in Oktibbeha County.
“We have a lot of possibilities, and as we go through this process, it will come out,” Trainer said. “We ought to be working together.”
Developer Spencer Bailey questioned why Cowart was chosen to lead an educational session when he has ties to a previous hospital transaction in Columbus with Baptist Memorial Health Care Corporation. Calls to Cowart at press time went unreturned. According to its website, Baker Donelson’s health care division has represented hospitals and health systems in almost 100 transactions in 15 states. On Friday, Cowart said he will share experiences from other in-state transactions, including deals in Lowndes and Lafayette counties, during the scheduled educational process.
“Having a man come in and talk to us who has been paid by Baptist is like having a fox in the chicken house,” Bailey said. “I don’t think it would be fair to bring this man into Oktibbeha County.”
Citizens then voiced their concern over any firm noted for hospital transactions handling an official analysis because of the potential for skewed results, but Trainer clarified no specific entity has been contracted to handle such an exercise.
“We can get anyone to come in,” Trainer said. “I think the data and analysis will speak for itself.”
When the board was questioned about why it allowed Trainer to schedule Cowart for the educational session, Howard said Trainer’s decision was not an official board action and the governing body “doesn’t make a habit of telling board members he can or cannot do something.”
“I’d hate for the rest of the supervisors to tell me I can or cannot discuss an issue I felt like was important,” Howard said.
When the rest of the board was questioned about their stance on a potential OCH sale, no supervisor spoke in favor or against the idea.
“What we, as an individual supervisor, have is our vote,” Howard said. “When our time comes to vote ‘yay’ or ‘nay,’” that’s when we speak with our vote. When official action needs to take place, we have our vote.”
Following the board’s proposal-seeking authorization, Montgomery said an unbiased organization would be needed to provide facts if the board chooses to allow such a survey.
“This is a topic one holds close to their hearts on both sides of the argument. I don’t want anyone with special interests either way,” he said. “OCH does a wonderful job, but there are constituents who ask why (the county owns) a hospital. Independent analysis is the most fair way to go about answering that question.”
Following the meeting, Trainer said this is the most political pressure he’s experienced in his career.
“It’s definitely the most important issue I’ve ever dealt with — and will ever deal with — because of the magnitude,” he said. “People may say I’m crazy, but I’m at peace with myself for trying to do something that could be beneficial for the county. My only prayer is that we, as a community, can come together, sit down and look at this situation in a non-emotional way.”