By CARL SMITH
As discussions continue on the future of OCH Regional Medical Center, hospital employees say they continue their day-to-day jobs while thoughts on the uncertain future are always at the back of their minds.
Hospital administrators say a transaction could affect job numbers and economic impact associated with the hospital; however, District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer has repeatedly said a sale or lease could place the hospital in the hands of a private system with deeper financial capabilities, a move which could position the hospital for expanded services and better health care quality in the future.
No one is certain what exactly would happen if the hospital is sold to a for- or not-for-profit health care system, but employees say the specter of job losses is an often-discussed topic within OCH’s ranks.
Nina Peele, an outpatient surgery manager with OCH, said alarm amongst employees has settled for the most part since discussions went public, but a sale’s potential impact is not forgotten. Now, she says, it’s commonplace for patients to enquire about the current hospital situation.
“I can’t speak for the whole hospital, but people mention it; however, they’re still doing their jobs. Now, it’s actually the patients who bring (the situation) up often,” she said. “They ask us what we think and how we feel about it. They’re pretty shocked about how this has come up.”
Discussions on OCH’s future went public in early June when Trainer broached the subject after rumors and speculation began to swirl. Since then, the board approved advertising for outside financial analysis of the hospital’s financial records, a grassroots movement against a sale formed and began collecting signatures against any type of transaction and two separate educational sessions discussed the hospital’s local commitment and what other health care systems have done following a sale. The board has received sharp criticisms and comments from the public during the process.
Peele said she was shocked when hospital speculation first emerged into the public arena in June. If members of the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors were interested in a potential hospital sale, she said, they should have mentioned it during their election campaigns last year.
County voters elected two new supervisors in November: District 1 Supervisor John Montgomery and District 5 Supervisor Joe Williams. Previously, Montgomery said many voters approached him about the hospital, its tax implications and the possibility of a sale while he was campaigning.
“I was really surprised (when discussion began on OCH’s future). I know Orlando had talked about it before, but I had no idea Joe Williams or John Montgomery were interested,” Peele said. “I feel like if that was their positions, they should have run on them. If people were talking to them about it (before they were elected) it should have been public.”
Previously, OCH trustees said an effort was not made by supervisors to discuss any perceived hospital shortcomings or its plan for future delivered health care, although individual supervisors have sat down with them since transaction discussion went public. The OCH Board of Trustees is selected by the board of supervisors.
Harry Holliday, a pulmonary medicine physician employed by OCH, said he believes hospital administrators go out of their way to ensure public health care needs are met. If there are concerns, he said the hospital should have a fair chance to address them.
As the process slowly develops and hospital administrators begin actively campaigning within the community before a possible vote on the matter is even determined, Holiday says the situation sidetracks the main objectives of OCH, including recruitment efforts. Peele and Holliday both said potential doctors are paying attention to the political situation surrounding the hospital.
“We have a physician starting within the month, and he’s already wondering what’s going on,” Peele said.
As a community-owned hospital, Peele, Holliday and internal medicine physician Ben Sanford say OCH offers a unique health care system which attracts employees from corporate systems. All three said they know numerous OCH employees who left their positions with for- and not-for-profit systems specifically seeking out the county-owned hospital.
“There are a lot of well-run facilities in the area that all serve their area well, but this is a unique situation. I think we cover our base very well,” Holliday said. “As an employee of this hospital, I’m covered by sovereign immunity statutes (specific to county-run hospitals). It’s one of the most unique recruiting tools we have.”
All three hospital representatives say community response toward keeping the hospital has been phenomenal and well received by OCH employees. Frank Davis, a pro-OCH supporter who helped organize the countywide petition against a hospital transaction, said his group grows closer to the 1,000 signature mark each day. If the board of supervisors approves a transaction following an analysis, a petition of 1,500 qualified Oktibbeha County voters could push a sale to the ballots in November.
If the board of supervisors continues with its process, Holliday said an outside analysis and possible November referendum issue will create unneeded expense for the county. Also, he said he would be wary of any outside analysis’ results.
“I think a local committee, whether its the university or business people, can look at (OCH information) and tell you what the financial picture looks like without going to a very expensive consultant,” he said. “I think it can be done (cheaper) locally. Why go through this huge expense? I think if you have local sources, it would be a lot less expensive and do a better job than (an entity the board of supervisors might seek).”
“I believe the citizens of Oktibbeha County will stand up for their hospital. As evident by the previous bond issue, they support the hospital and value its services and how it’s run,” retired surgeon Steve Parvin said. “It’s a crying shame if it has to come to a vote. I don’t think anything needs to be done until we know how the new health care laws will affect services because they will change the dynamic of health care in the whole country. To rush and do something now is foolish.”