The major discussion at the Randolph County Economic Development Authority Monday was the status of Wedowee Hospital, how the county will be impacted if the hospital closes and how to keep it open.

Attorney John Tinney, who represents the city of Roanoke and the Randolph County Commission, spoke briefly. He said a hospital is an industry--an industry they want to keep here if they can. If voters do not commit to the proposed one-percent sales tax for construction of a new hospital under the Certificate of Need of the present Wedowee Hospital it is important to know what the consequences will be.

Tanner Health Systems has been propping up Wedowee Hospital by providing administrator Mike Alexander, who is paid by Tanner, as well as other funding. Tanner's CEO Loy Howard said what the county does about healthcare is a high-stakes decision that is important to what you have now and what you will have in five or ten years.

He did a Powerpoint presentation on Tanner--how it started and where it is now. He said it is important to pair with a partner who has the same values. Tanner for the past 20 years has been a community regional system that partners with local communities. It has been around for 60 years named after C.M. Tanner but Roy Richardson was the one who got the hospital viable. He was very involved in the community and raised money making Tanner into the large business it now is with more than a $1 billion in business. Tanner's hospitals grew and were invested in. One of the issues facing Wedowee Hospital is if it is left the way it is it will not be viable.

When looking at a partner what you should consider is quality of outcomes and financial stability, Howard said.

"This is an important decision for you--don't pick us because we're are the only option," Howard said. He said he is not a newcomer to Randolph County--that he started in Woodland in 1996.

Wedowee Hospital needs to be brought up to code. He cannot recruit physicians to that hospital. That hospital cannot be taken and made sustainable in this environment. If they started renovating they would run into more problems, he said.

Reopening Randolph Medical Center in Roanoke, closed four years ago last month, is not going to happen. Being vacant for so long brings up environmental issues like mold in what should be a sterile environment, he said. Ideally, they could bring two hospitals together in a place people love. When RMC closed they were surprised. Usually the vendors create the problem.

Howard went on to say he is "very bullish about Randolph County. You have a great lake, 431, and are in close proximity to Opelika, Atlanta."

He is the chairman of economic development in Carroll County and two things people want to look at when talking about moving in are the schools and health care.

Tanner wants to bring 24-hour services. Urgent care only fits a segment of the population, he said. They don't take care of people who can't pay. They are not there when you need help at 2 a.m.

According to the Georgia Hospital Association a hospital generates about $12 million. Think about that investment versus no hospital, Howard said. They have an excellent track record, and it will be a strong economic driver of your community, he said. Wedowee Hospital employs about 88.

"We're a community hospital system. I live 30 miles away from you on my farm (in Heard County)," he said.

RCEDA chairman Sid Hare asked in Tanner's history how many hospitals or clinics has it closed? Howard said they have opened about a dozen clinics and have not closed any hospitals. At one time they made an offer for the hospital in Bowdon but those in charge said it was not enough. It closed a year later and there is no hospital there now. It was completely independent and had nothing to do with Tanner, he said.

He was asked if he saw the Woodland Clinic closing and he said no. If people can get health care at the local level they are going to access it. More than 80 to 90 percent of the needs can be taken care of locally, he said.

Tinney said he wanted to clarify a couple of things. There had been a question about Tanner not putting money into the hospital but if it was not for Tanner Wedowee Hospital would be closed right now. No one but Tanner is interested in Randolph County. When questioned why not consider property tax instead of sales tax to fund the hospital he said sales tax is best because it involves everyone. The legislature already has the bill. The only hope we have is the one-cent sales tax, and the only way to get 24/7 care is through a hospital.

"We don't have a prayer to get industry if we don't have a hospital. Common sense will tell you that," Tinney said.

Something was said (at a previous meeting) about Kevin Beightol and what a good job he did at Randolph County Hospital (later Randolph Medical Center) when he was in charge. One thing people do not understand is hospitals are told what they will get for their services, Tinney said. When Beightol and Dr. (Chester) Primm were working and someone had a $30,000 bill it was paid. Today insurance might pay $3,700 of the $30,000. It is a totally different ballgame today, he said. If the hospital closes there will not be any free care. Dr. Peterson and Regional Medical Center are not mandated to give free care.

"This is not a Roanoke-Wedowee thing. Ask them what they think about a hospital. Say if it is built in Roanoke will it have more support? Tanner is willing to come in, get involved and provide the county with a hospital. If the tax is passed and they put it on the land near Wedowee it should be a source of pride.

Hare, because of a question asked, asked Rep. Bob Fincher if he thought a property tax was the way to go because property taxes are so low. Fincher said they are on the horse now and are not going to change horses midstream. Playing around is what is going to lose your hospital. He introduced the bill last Tuesday and it should be through by next Tuesday. Sen. Gerald Dial is handling it in the Senate. There is jealousy in the north and south in the county but the discussed site is centrally located as to serve all the citizens of Randolph County. Getting to the emergency room soon as possible is the aim. He seconded what Tinney said about if the hospital is closed hospital emergency care becomes problematic for the citizens of Randolph County. Without adequate health care it makes your job much more difficult to bring jobs into this area for your children and grandchildren, Fincher said.

If the legislation was amended to go with a property tax the hospital is going to close and you are going to lose your Certificate of Need. Like a rock thrown into a pound there are ripples and one of those ripples is the ambulances have to go out of the county. The poor will not reimburse them and then the ambulances go bankrupt, he said.

Hare said it surprised him to learn an ambulance cannot take a patient to urgent care and be reimbursed.

David Daniel asked if the hospital closes where will the inmates be taken for medical care but no one knew the answer.

Thomas Longino of Balch and Bingham LLP, a Birmingham-based law firm, said he agreed with two things that had been said: they have to come together on this and health care is changing. He said his firm has more than 200 lawyers and they represent hospitals up and down the state. They have been involved with various consolidations. Financing options are limited under Alabama law. Sales taxes are a burden. Longino said his firm proposed to be a second set of eyes for the board and how to protect the county on the sales tax money. They are a large law firm with expertise in health care finance.

Authority members discussed retaining the law firm for consultation work up to $5,000, then negotiate after that. Tinney said the Randolph County Commission has entered into an agreement with Tanner, the Randolph County Healthcare Authority, with attorney Chad Lee, and he was not against them doing whatever they wanted but the agreements have reached a certain point. Tanner wants certain things and we want certain things, he said. If they retain Balch & Bingham it would not change things done so far. They can spend their $5,000 but he did not know what they would get for their money. Longino said they were not wanting to be divisive. If they did not need them he agreed they should not spend the money.

Tinney said the work is in progress but there are a lot of issues that have to be worked out. He hopes it would be finalized in a couple of weeks with all the kinks worked out.

Hare said Balch and Bingham's expertise could help so there would not be any loopholes. If $20 million is going to be spent they need it overseen.

Authority member Kesa Dunn said expertise in any field is important.

Longino said he learned about this a couple of weeks ago. He would be a member of the team and be as helpful as he can be.

Hare said he wanted to make sure the sales tax would not put the county in peril. Tinney said tax is now 8.5 percent and would be at 9.5. If people say that is too high they go to Anniston, Oxford, Opelika where it is 10 percent now.

"I want people to understand how important this issue is and what is at stake for the county--it is a watershed moment. If we lose the hospital––if it fails it is over, the hospital is closed," Tinney said.

Dunn said they are being asked to trust Tanner, to trust others with limited knowledge and no guarantee.

Authority member Joe Lambert said if they have a prospective industry the first question is about utilities, then schools, then where is your hospital?

Executive director Cotina Terry said Gov. Robert Bentley had named his health care task force earlier that day.

Authority member Bob Bugg made the motion to table hiring Balch and Bingham--that they probably got him into the game too late. They tabled the hiring.

Hare later said he thought it was perfectly appropriate to hire the law firm. It would be totally neutral and they could give their expert view of the contract--how much risk Tanner is taking and how much risk there is to the county--the risk to both parties.

"I'm 110 percent in favor of the hospital, and Tanner is the only game in town. I am working very hard to get the message to the detractors opposed to the one-cent sales tax," Hare said.

Authority member Pat Whaley asked if the authority wanted to pass the tax and if there was any way to spend money for public notices, advertising, to let the public know what is going to happen if it does not pass.

He asked if there might be something that would help in the governor's task force. Fincher said in his experience there is a lot of studying, a lot of talking and he really did not think the hospital has enough time to get by.

Bugg said he remembered when the Roanoke hospital closed all the sudden. If the sales tax did not pass in his opinion it would close the hospital.

Whaley said they need to publicize what will happen if the hospital closes. Bugg said if they did not use the money to hire Balch and Bingham they might use it for this to publicize, to promote the hospital.

Fincher said they were getting the bill through the legislature as quickly as they can and thought the vote would come in July but today they said it would happen in August. It is up to the county commission to schedule the actual election.

Whaley asked about how much of the hospital tax is available and was told of the $950,000 brought in all but about $100,000 goes to fund employees' retirement benefits.

 

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