By STEVEN NALLEY
Pioneer Health Services and Choctaw County officials held a groundbreaking ceremony Friday for the Pioneer Community Hospital of Choctaw, located at the intersection of Highway 12 and Highway 9 in Ackerman.
The new hospital will replace the Choctaw County Community Hospital, which was temporarily closed by the Mississippi Department of Health in December 2009. Joining Pioneer and county officials Friday was U.S. Congressman Alan Nunnelee.
“This is important for rural health care, (for) the people not just in Choctaw County, but in this entire region of Mississippi,” Nunnelee said. “It’s also a provider of jobs, and in this economy, we are most appreciative of anybody who’s willing to invest to create jobs. Make no mistake about it, in Mississippi, health care is economic development.”
Steve Fontaine, vice president of hospital operations at Pioneer Health Services, said the new hospital and its jobs could not happen without the vested interest the Choctaw County community has shown in maintaining its health care. He said Pioneer began plans to staff the hospital with 25 job openings and expected about 75-100 applications.
“Would you believe that there were actually 750 folks who applied for those 25 jobs?” Fontaine asked. “That tells me we want to be part of that. We have eight, soon to be nine hospitals in the Southeast, and we will not go into communities unless the community, the board and the hospital board are totally invested in the long-term success of that community and its health care. We started at 25 jobs; we’re now looking at 125 jobs, and that is about $6 million a year if you include payroll and payroll taxes. I’m glad we can offer that to the county because it’s truly a commitment on both sides.”
Eric Chambers, District 5 Supervisor for Choctaw County, recounted the history of the county’s medical system leading up to Pioneer’s ground breaking. He said the original Choctaw County Community Hospital opened in September 1953 and has been renovated several times. In 2009, he said, the board of supervisors began to sense problems with the hospital and its lessee.
“We determined that we should have a plan of action should these problems evolve further,” Chambers said. “After discussion with legal counsel, we were advised to contact the state department of health about (our) options. We visited seven rural hospitals in two states to see how they managed their hospitals. As a result of this trip, the board decided to seek out companies to lease or manage CCMC in the event that the hospital faced closure. As was feared, on Dec. 9, 2009, the state department of health closed the hospital due to a number of deficiencies.”
The lessee filed bankruptcy shortly afterward, Chambers said, and a bankruptcy judge placed the hospital and its nursing home in the county’s hands in February 2010.
“Instantly, we had 54 nursing home residents that needed care, and we had to provide it, and I’d like to thank all of the nursing home staff as well as the hospital staff for bearing with us during those difficult times,” Chambers said. “We had a caring staff that considered others before themselves.”
Four companies responded to a request for qualifications the board sent out before the hospital closed, Chambers said, and the board chose Pioneer Medical Service’s proposal to manage the nursing home while negotiating a lease with Pioneer to reopen the hospital. The lease ultimately expanded to include clinics in Weir and Ackerman, he said, and the hospital reopened in October of 2010.
The board discussed the possibility of opening a new hospital, Chambers said, and after an extensive revision process, the board approved plans for a new facility, and $13.5 million in bonds for it were sold.
“The founders of the first hospital would be proud their dream is being carried on,” Chambers said. “This hospital will be constructed at the crossroads of three highways and will stand proudly as a facility built for an amazing county of amazing people to do amazing things.”