By CARL SMITH
Is OCH Regional Medical Center positioned to deliver expanded, quality medical services for the future?
The answer depends on who you ask.
District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer says a transaction could place OCH in control of a health care system with the ability to provide more future resources than the hospital and the county can supply; however, OCH trustees say previous investments, including a voter-approved $27.5 million bond issue, readied the county hospital for future challenges.
Health care quality is not the only variable in limbo with a potential transaction. Hospital jobs, county tax rates and potential economic development keys also hang in the balance while both sides of the issue claim positive and negative results of a transaction.
If the hospital is sold, OCH administrators say there are no guarantees a bottom line-driven owner will not cut job numbers; however, Trainer points to evidence presented Monday by Richard Cowart, Baker Donelson’s Health Law Department chairman, saying covenants can be established to preserve employment and, in some cases, job numbers increased dramatically after a transaction.
While no one can be sure how jobs could be impacted after a sale, a millage adjustment would occur. State law dictates any public hospital debt must be dealt with in a transaction. Roughly six mills would come off county tax rolls, which would save the county approximately $1.8 million per year. If a transaction brought in more than the hospital’s total debt, state law dictates the remainder can be deposited in the county’s general fund and used for any lawful purpose.
Trainer, a self-described champion of infrastructure, said the use of any possible financial flexibility would not be determined by one supervisor. No specific plans have been developed to spend money since supervisors do not know how much the hospital could fetch in a sale, nor if a transaction is even recommended, he said.
“What we can do is limited to what three members (a voting majority of the board) want to do for the county. We can’t determine anything now, but it’s only logical and fair each supervisor develops proposals for projects after bonds are paid off if a sale even occurs. Right now, it’s hard to spend money you don’t have,” Trainer said. “Each supervisor is capable of developing that kind of plan. Some may say leave it as a tax break … while (retired mills could allow) … an investment in county education. Education and infrastructure — anything that provides a positive impact and return to quality of life — can be looked at. You could even invest some of the money (like Lowndes County after its transaction) and use the interest to service other bonds, projects and community economic development.”
But why entertain the notion of a transaction? Trainer says his perspective is simple: The hospital came to taxpayers for a bond once. As operation costs continue to rise, will officials have to repeat the action for future expansion or to develop new services? Can taxpayers continue to support the hospital?
“I don’t think (the hospital) can (cover future investments). The cost of business and the cost of salaries are all going up. They won’t be able to fund raises and buy equipment while tending to expansion needs,” Trainer said. “I think our community is a community all about being at the forefront and being leaders. (A transaction could) put us in a position to provide the things we can’t now and aren’t projected to.”
Four current OCH Board of Trustees members and previous hospital administrator Arthur C. “Sonny” Kelly agree previous investment projects — the last general obligation bond passed by the county and other private revenue bonds obtained by the hospital — developed the hospital into a quality health care provider and poised it for the future’s challenges. A hospital transaction could very well shuffle the board of trustees and replace them with a new owner’s choices, but Cowart’s presentation stated previous covenants allowed a split corporate-local oversight group.
Trustees Jimmy Linley, Leon Mathis, Glenn Mullins and Fenton Peters all said a future public bond need is highly unlikely in the coming years. The trustees also said county supervisors have not approached them with complaints about the hospital’s current quality of health care, but meetings with individual supervisors were held in the past month.
“What we’ve got in our plans … we don’t have anything to lead me to believe we’ll come back to supervisors for more bondings. Right now, (future plans include) fine tuning what we have now and recruiting doctors,” Peters said. “We’re trying to accommodate public need for any areas we feel we have.”
Linley, the board of trustees’ chairman, said the hospital bond’s passage reflected a desire for this community to invest in health care.
“We didn’t have to go to the public to ask for tax dollars to help fund the expansion. What we did was what the people in this community were talking to us about every day. They wanted different things, including bigger rooms and better services. What we did was put a plan together and put it out to the people. The people voted overwhelmingly to (pass the bond),” he said. “Sometimes people forget we are a community-based, community-owned hospital. We move to the dictates of the community. It was not like we did something where we went to the community and said, ‘You have to vote for this.’ Oktibbeha County Hospital’s expansion put ourselves in a position not only to survive, but also to grow and expand services.”
Kelly, who retired as the hospital’s chief administrator in February after a 38-year career with OCH, said the hospital’s niche and community-oriented services allow it to serve its residents and the area differently than other major health systems in the area. He said it’s unfair for one supervisor to challenge the hospital’s financial condition when its mission is community-focused health care and not the financial bottom line.
“If (administrators) wanted that hospital to make a lot of money, they can do that. If we had not built these facilities, we would not have had a dog’s chance to bring in good qualified physicians. The number of doctors we have recruited in the last 10 years is phenomenal. (In other communities, some specialists) are as hard to find on teeth and a chicken.” Kelly said. “We are sitting like a rock in the middle of a stream between major (health care) systems. We’re not jealous of anybody. If you take it on the scale of your niches, we do as well or better than anybody. When you have a supervisor come up and say we can improve it, how do they know? For anybody to tell you OCH is in a weak financial position, they absolutely don’t know what they’re talking about.”
The board of supervisors has taken no official action further than seeking proposals for a financial analysis. Following an analysis, supervisors could seek potential suitors to purchase or lease the hospital; however, the final decision on a transaction probably will be made by Oktibbeha County citizens.
Frank Davis, an OCH supporter, said he and other grassroots volunteers have collected almost 800 public signatures against a possible hospital sale or lease. According to state law, if 1,500 registered voters’ signatures are collected, a potential sale would be moved to the November general election’s ballot.
“If this thing comes to a vote, I feel extremely sure the public will vote down the three supervisors (who approved a sale or lease),” Mullins said. “I think the public knows what it has in OCH. The hospital, I believe, will stay in the people’s hands after November.”