By CARL SMITH
After almost half a year of speculation surrounding OCH Regional Medical Center’s future, hospital CEO Richard Hilton says the experience brought a sense of unity to the community and displayed the hospital’s commitment to service.
The road to this experience, however, was one marred with uncertainty, carried on the shoulders of hospital employees.
“I think this year brought us all together from a unity standpoint and showed that we’re a team focused on being a valuable part of the community and proving the best quality of medicine we can,” Hilton said.
In June, the first public discussion by county supervisors on the hospital’s future began after representatives began receiving numerous phone calls, texts, emails and letters in regard to circulating rumors about a possible hospital sale or lease.
District 2 Supervisor Orlando Trainer used his allotted time during that month’s first board meeting to open the door for public discussion on the subject and gauge other representatives’ interest. Both Trainer and District 5 Supervisor Joe Williams said they were contacted by outside organizations about possibly taking over the county hospital. Trainer said a change in ownership could provide long-term benefits to Oktibbeha County’s health care, education, economic development and infrastructure; however, hospital administrators said the county would experience a cascading array of issues, including job losses and a decrease in the quality of delivered health care.
In 2008, county voters approved a $27.5 million bond issue for construction and improvements at the hospital. Those funds were used to construct the facility’s West Tower and a four-level, 200-plus space parking deck; expand patient rooms from 100-square-feet to over 200-square-feet; and move its intensive care unit to a new floor, allowing construction of a modern women’s care unit that provides pregnancy services. The hospital does not directly service the bond citizens passed in 2008, but it does service revenue bonds issued in 2002.
Supervisors agreed more public discussion was needed on the issue, and two hearings were held over the summer.
First, Baker Donelson representative Richard Cowart spoke to citizens about how other Mississippi communities approached potential hospital deals. While he highlighted health care successes in Oxford and Hattiesburg, Cowart did say many communities opted not to part with their government-controlled medical facilities.
A pro-OCH educational hearing was also organized by hospital supporters and held days after Cowart’s presentation. In response to the possible transaction, Frank Davis, an avid OCH supporter, organized a grassroots movement which collected signatures across the county against any future sale or transaction. If supervisors decided to move forward with a transaction, state law says a petition drive would force the issue to a public referendum.
In the midst of public debate on the subject, supervisors took little action on the matter. The board did authorize a call for hospital analysis proposals, an action also deemed necessary by state law, in a 3-2 vote.
Once District 1 Supervisor John Montgomery publicly said he was not in favor of any hospital transaction, the issue became stalled with the board of supervisors.
In the fall, an analysis proposal was submitted to the board by Horne CPAs and Business Advisors, the same group which handled similar reviews in Greenwood and Grenada. The board tabled the matter and it has not appeared back on supervisors agendas this year.
Although the issue has not gained significant board traction, Trainer said county health care opportunities would remain an important issue during his tenure as board president.