There have been no formal talks and the matter hasn’t even made it onto the agenda yet.
Even so, the rumors and speculation surrounding a possible sale of the Oktibbeha County Hospital have already prompted an accusation and a rebuttal.
“I think it’s unfortunate that (OCH) has organized a group to call the (county) supervisors to try to influence their thinking on this,” said District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer. “It’s sad they would sink to that level.”
Richard Hilton, the hospital’s CEO, strenuously objected to that characterization.
“What we did is tell our employees that if they didn’t want to see the hospital sold, they should contact their supervisor, whether by calls or emails or letters,” Hilton said. “We didn’t give them a canned script. It wasn’t mandatory. We just said that their viewpoint needs to be considered and the way to do that is to let the supervisors know. I see absolutely nothing wrong with that.”
Trainer, who is an outspoken advocate for exploring the sale, insisted his position is not that the hospital should be sold.
“It would be close-minded to say that at this point,” he said, noting he has talked informally to several potential buyers.
“There’s more to it than just keeping (OCH) or selling it,” Trainer said. “In the economic times we are in, with so many expectations from the citizens, if there is something you are doing that could be done better by someone else, you really have no choice. It comes down to what is in the best interest of the citizens.”
The OCH strategy to fight the sale appears to be two-fold.
Hilton said the sale would eliminate anywhere from 140 to 240 jobs, based on a comparison of staffing between OCH and other hospitals of similar size.
However, Shawn Rossi of the Mississippi Hospital Association said the impact on jobs from a sale of a hospital is almost impossible to quantify.
“There are so many variables,” Rossi said. “Who’s selling? Who’s buying? What are the particulars? Is it a management contract only? Is it a merger of two hospitals in an area? Every case is different.”
Hilton also said that if the hospital were sold, it would have an adverse effect on the services the hospital would provide, particularly if the hospital were sold to a for-profit group.
“You start answering to stockholders and they first thing you do is to look at those services that are not profitable,” Hilton said. “I think one of the first things that would happen in that situation is that the hospital would give the ambulance service back to the county, because it is not at all cost-effective. That’s just one example.”
County Administrator Don Posey said, while the board might be divided on the issue of whether or not to look into a sale of the hospital, it is unanimous in its commitment to quality care.
“”The main concern of the board would be: Does it improve the health care?” Posey said. “That’s the bottom line with us. I am pretty sure the board would not approve of anything that made health care worse. It’s not just dollars and cents for the board.”
Another factor that might influence the viability of a sale is debt. Hilton said.
OCH is carrying $35 million in debt. Additionally, there is the balance of $27.5 million in bonds that were used for an OCH expansion completed last year.
Posey said he feels the debt burden wouldn’t necessarily make a sale unfeasible.
“”It appears to be a very workable thing, as for as the debt goes,” Posey said. “With the sale, you would retire that debt if that’s what it came to. We would have the millage that you are looking for, as far as using that to pay the debt, too. Then, with the additional monies from the sale, you would probably put it in an interest-bearing account as time goes on, either to pay bond debts or using it for other projects, such as roads, for example.”
Posey said other counties also are looking into selling their hospitals.
In March, The Grenada County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to begin the process of considering the sale of Grenada Lake Medical Center.
“There are four or five counties that are looking in the same thing and some counties have already sold their hospitals,” Posey noted. “So I think the board feels it’s worth looking at, at least.”
Hilton said the majority of those sales involved hospitals that were struggling financially or under-performing, something that can’t be said of OCH.
“We’re fortunate to have one of the best county hospitals in the state,” Posey said. “They’ve also operated consistently in the black as long as I can remember, so it’s very sound.”
Hilton said much of the trend in county hospital sales is linked to uncertainty over the national health care reform that awaits a U.S. Supreme Court ruling and to an anti-tax sentiment among many citizens.
“It’s simple. Without taxes, there are no services,” Hilton said. “People have to make up their minds about the services they want and are willing to pay for.”
“It is a emotional issue,” Trainer said. “We understand that.”
Neither Trainer nor Posey would say when the matter would be put on the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisor’s official agenda.
“I think that decision will come pretty quick,” Posey said.
Trainer said he would like to move on the matter soon.
“I don’t know exactly when that would be,” he said. “The Board has talked about this informally. We may be close to taking the next step. I’m kind of the poster boy for this, so it may be the Board wants me to put together a presentation based on those people I have talked to.
“But I do feel that we’re close to the point where we need to take the next step,” he added.