By CARL SMITH
Oktibbeha County citizens packed the county courthouse Monday to beyond its usual operating capacity for Baker Donelson representative Richard Cowart’s much-anticipated presentation on health care development.
Cowart’s educational session on the potential for county health care drew so many people to the courtroom that even the jurors’ box was almost fully occupied. Citizens found extra chairs near the judge’s box and even packed the building’s hallway.
Cowart, the chairman of Nashville’s Baker Donelson’s Health Law Department, discussed public health care investments in Forrest, Lee, Lafayette and Lowndes counties and compared those individual situations to OCH Regional Medical Center and Oktibbeha County. Those counties, he said, made decisions ranging from transactions to large public investments to develop and grow area health care, which in turn increased the number of medical services provided, jobs and economic development in their own areas.
“Moving a hospital in any town ... everyone has a stake,” Cowart said. “Four of those (counties) have decided health care is a big deal (and) they’re going to be a regional health center. How everybody figured out how to do that is different.”
Once Baptist Memorial Health Care Corporation officials decided last year to purchase the hospital it leased in Oxford, the health system pledged funding for a new $300 million facility, Cowart said. Since Baptist began its lease over 20 years ago, the number of hospital employees, services and development projects increased, therefore placing it on the map in Mississippi as a prime location for health care.
Oxford’s transaction and investments highlight the ability college towns have in attracting patients and employees, Cowart said.
“They’ve almost quadrupled their medical staff because people want to live in Oxford. Why did they go to Oxford? For the same reason people come here: These are two communities that people love,” he said. “There are covenants in the deal … (which) continue recruitment and growth, ambulance services and share the (hospital’s) local governing board. They protected the what-ifs and developed their next level of growth. It’s the single largest health care investment in the history of Mississippi.”
Cowart also highlighted county-owned Forrest General Hospital in Hattiesburg and said Forrest County’s past investments have placed its health care system at a point it can continue to sustain growth.
“Forrest General did not seek (an outside) partner, but the partner became the county. (The county) put hundreds of millions of dollars into the health system. It takes a lot of investment now (to have a comparable operation),” he said. (Forrest County) had enough bonding capacity to do other projects (education, infrastructure, etc.) while supporting the hospital. There are numerous plans for the future, and its now gotten to the size the county doesn’t have to fund it (because) it can fund itself. It took a lot to get to that point.”
Before closing his presentation, Cowart said residents should tactfully approach the current OCH situation with an open mind while protecting their own desires.
“You have to look at your destination to frame your options. Give it thought for what you want before you get involved. In Clarksdale, they wanted to get out of the hospital business; Oxford was tired of people going to Tupelo,” Cowart said. “Get your bearing about what you want and only take qualified bidders. Be specific with your (request for proposals). Tell them — don’t ask them — (you) cannot let anybody lose their jobs or benefits; set minimum standards. Decide what your community wants your hospital to be and have a decent conversation.”
Following Cowart’s presentation, he and District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer replied to pointed remarks from OCH supporters and citizens who criticized the hospital’s lack of care options. The night’s most heated moments came from developer Spencer Bailey, who accused Cowart of “being paid by Baptist” and another unidentified speaker who told Trainer the way the county has handled the developing OCH situation is deplorable.
Although the night’s citizen comments featured those entrenched on both sides of the debate, numerous people stood and said they were undecided about the situation and asked that the situation develop as many facts as possible and remain transparent.
By the end of the public health care session, a number of citizens approached Cowart and apologized for heated remarks others made during the meeting.