By CARL SMITH
Following two high-profile educational sessions on OCH Regional Medical Center, Oktibbeha County supervisors agree a group of residents showed a strong desire to keep its community-owned hospital. At the same time, some members of the board say an independent analysis of the health center’s financial data is the only certain way to have a definitive direction as to how to proceed in regard to a possible transaction.
So what happens next?
When supervisors agreed to seek proposals for an OCH analysis last month, the board did not set a hard deadline for submissions. Since District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer will miss Monday’s regular board meeting, supervisors are not expected to act on the matter; however, Trainer suggests the board move forward in August and analyze the proposals.
“Both meetings were great successes, and I’m excited about the way it’s going. A lot of people have been vocal OCH supporters, but at the same time there are those out there wanting more information to look at. What we’re saying as a board is we’d be remiss to stick our heads in the sand now and not look at the facts,” he said. “I think an analysis will give us facts. At any stage this process goes through, it can be continued or abandoned. It can make our next step obvious.”
“I walk by faith, not by sight,” he added when addressing the sharp criticism he has drawn primarily from OCH supporters.
Board President Marvell Howard said exploring the facts surrounding OCH’s financial situation and its position to deliver future health care lines up with the will of the board.
When the board voted to seek proposals, Howard and District 4 Supervisor Daniel Jackson were the lone dissenting votes. Jackson was unavailable for comments as of press time.
“It’s been a pretty exciting week here in Oktibbeha County. One thing I think this discussion has done is caused, although in an around-about way, is a good look at health care in this county, focusing on where we’ve come from and where we’re looking to go,” Howard said. “I’m probably like everyone else because there’s been information presented that I just wasn’t aware about. It has been enlightening to sit through these sessions. At this point, we’ve got a 3-2 majority vote to work toward an analysis. That’s what the vote was, and you have to respect what the majority decided.”
Although no board member has gone on record and explicitly said the hospital should be sold or leased to a private or non-profit hospital system, supervisors say they feel some OCH-supporters have prematurely decided the board is in favor of such a transaction.
District 1 Supervisor John Montgomery, who voted with Trainer and District 5 Supervisor Joe Williams to seek proposals, said he’s simply practicing due diligence by approving the first step needed an OCH fact-finding analysis.
While on the campaign trail last year before November’s election, Montgomery said drew numerous public comments.
“Personally, I’m only on a fact-finding mission. That’s the honest truth. I’m looking at both sides of this issue and keeping an open mind with both as to where we’d be in the event our hospital is sold or kept. First and foremost, this hospital needs to be the very best it can be and provide the very best health care possible for the citizens of Oktibbeha County; however, there’s also the issue of if we, as a county-owned hospital, can sustain that level of care for the future. We’re not intentionally knocking OCH at all when we ask could the hospital be better with more services,” Montgomery said. “An analysis is almost a needed piece of the equation (in figuring out the current situation) because it shows you the hard facts.”
State law dictates a county must conduct an analysis before any possible transaction is approved. A transaction would determine the hospital’s worth and suggest whether or not it should be sold, leased or kept in government control.
“Right now, we don’t have a pinpoint number on (how much the hospital would fetch in a transaction) other than ideas,” Montgomery said. “If it comes back and says do not sell the hospital, then it says that. I believe even if it says to keep the hospital, it could show ways to improve it and work with its costs, much like a financial planner sitting down with someone and going over their portfolio.”
Since public discussion began, Trainer has said a move could place hospital ownership in the hands of an organization with deeper pockets and development potential compared to the county. In that situation, he said an organization could provide more capital and expansions in health care than the county could, therefore positioning OCH for even greater regional competition. On the other side of the issue, hospital administrators say control of job numbers and service quality would no longer be in local hands. No administrator can say for certain what would happen to OCH if it is sold or leased.
“The biggest question here is dollars and cents. I think the ($27.5 million bond issue) and how it put a debt structure on the county is evident the hospital needs a partner with deeper pockets than Oktibbeha County citizens,” Trainer said.
But would a transaction dynamically change the quality of health care in Oktibbeha County?
In both sessions, many OCH supporters delivered testimonials about the hospital’s service quality while sharing concerns of their hospital becoming a “spoke-in-the-wheel facility” of a larger corporation.
But in a prepared statement, Williams said high levels of OCH patient out-migration rates presented during the week’s educational sessions show citizens are already comfortable with receiving care from non-profit health systems.
“(During the week’s educational sessions) I learned that most hospitals in this surrounding area are not for profit rather than for-profit hospitals. Thusly, there were some misleading statements concerning for-profit hospitals coming into Oktibbeha County just to make money. Since statistical information revealed that Oktibbeha County has a 49 percent out-migration rate to other hospitals, almost half (of patients) are already using surrounding not-for-profit hospitals like the (facilities) in Tupelo and Columbus,” Williams said in the release. “They seem to be satisfied with the quality of care since our residents keep returning for follow-up visits Yes, OCH is a (county-owned hospital), but presentations revealed that residents of Oktibbeha County have already become with private, not-for-profit hospital care.”
The only certain impact of a sale would affect the county millage rates. Currently, the county reserves 6.21 mills — approximately $1.8 million — per year to service the previous general obligation bond citizens passed in 2008. State law dictates sale proceeds must first be used to retire any debt. Following that exercise, the county would be free to use the remaining funds in any other lawful way.
Although the hospital is a regional care facility, only Oktibbeha County residents directly shoulder the bond’s burden.
Since a sale price is not determined, no county supervisor has explicitly said what the potential funds would be used for; however, Trainer said money could be used from infrastructure projects to funding economic development.
Montgomery said successful economic endeavors would help drive up the amount a mill brings to county coffers, therefore allowing supervisors more financial breathing room for projects and possibly lowering the amount of mills needed to fund county business. Currently, a mill brings in right under $300,000 in Oktibbeha County. Comparatively, a mill in Lowndes County brings in well over $500,000.
“Funding economic development will create an environment of growth in this county. I think it would put us at a more competitive stance to bring in new businesses and bring mills off existing businesses,” he said. “Just imagine if we could bolster our mill value like Lowndes (County) has. For example, having a way to pave and maintain roads in the future is a way to (continue bolstering) the mill value. We could put a lot more back into Oktibbeha County.”
The county currently levies 4.95 mills for its countywide paving program. It’s current four-year road plan includes prior building and maintenance plans which were delayed due to weather problems and a lack of funding.
At the current rate, 5 mills brings in approximately $1.5 million, while a $200,000 increase in a mill’s value would provide $2.5 million at the same rate.
As the hospital situation continues to develop, Howard says believes last week’s educational sessions will be the first of many to come. Pro-OCH supporters have previously said future sessions would be planned and held at the hospital itself. Even though tension within the community runs high as residents analyze each move the board makes and every comment supervisors deliver on the situation, Howard said a professional, working relationship continues between the county and OCH administrators.
“That speaks highly of OCH’s leaders,” Howard said.
Supervisors say they will continue to approach the issue with tact and only act in the county’s best interest. Howard, Montgomery and Trainer all said they hope residents will approach the issue with an open mind and let the facts speak for themselves.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people who say they don’t know which way they’ll go on this issue. Frankly, there are a lot of people who say the analysis should give you the information as to which way to go,” Montgomery said. “I think you’ve got the people … on both sides of the issue who’ve undoubtedly made up their minds, but I feel most people are willing to look at the situation with an open mind. I want unbiased facts to be presented (to) the people so that way people can make their own minds up. I’m confident this will happen.”