Like an albatross tied securely around the mariner’s neck, Batesville’s hospital has become a burden better shed. But it will be up to the county’s voters to decide whether their hospital should be sold to the best bidder.
Pending final approval of the U.S. Dept. of Justice, a binding referendum will be included in the General Election Nov. 2. The result of that referendum will be the final word on whether Tri-Lakes Medical Center remains a publicly owned property or is sold to a private company.
The referendum was prompted by a successful petition drive to get the issue on the ballot.
"Personally, I think the county should go out of the health care business," said Panola County supervisor Robert Avant. He said opinions are divided on the issue.
"Some want it and some don’t want it."
Panola County and Batesville jointly own Tri-Lakes. The county controls 60 percent while the city owns the remaining 40 percent.
The 80-bed facility is a throwback to another era. When it was originally built about three decades ago, municipally owned hospitals were common throughout the land.
But times have changed and in this era of privatization, medical care is sometimes just another step in that economic practice. Already, Tri-Lakes is being managed by a company hired a year ago; Emergent Health, according to one hospital official, has turned Tri-Lakes around.
"Since we took over in July 2003, we have added more than 100 employees," said Ray Shoemaker, chief operating officer of Tri-Lakes and one of 309 Emergent employees.
Dr. Bob Corkern is administrator of Tri-Lakes and sole owner of Emergent Health. His company is also one of five health care firms that have entered bids to purchase the hospital.
Shoemaker is a capable promoter of Emergent’s efforts; he keeps detailed success statistics at his fingertips.
He pointed out that the hospital lost $1.35 million the year before Emergent took over. After a year managing the hospital, Shoemaker said Emergent made a profit of $1.36 million.
"That’s a 200 percent increase in revenue," he explained. "It was the first time in history (the hospital) was able to pay the bond passed in 2000."
That the hospital was floundering was no secret to city and county officials. What to do about it was the big question.
A new hospital building was built six years ago with funding from a bond issue; apparently, the bond payments were always a struggle to pay.
"Real problems were involved," said supervisor Avant. During a two-week stay at Tri-Lakes in 2000, Avant said he received firsthand knowledge of some of the problems.
"There was a lack of supplies and staff."
Things were not as they should be and, according to Avant’s experience as a patient there, they certainly weren’t the way he and others in Batesville had envisioned, back when the push for a new hospital building was in full swing.
"The hospital board," Avant recalled, "said if we build it, the doctors and patients would come. It didn’t happen."
"The county has been in the hospital business since 1975," said Batesville Mayor Bobby Baker. "The city got into it about five years ago when the new building was being built because the county didn’t have enough money."
Baker doesn’t voice it but regret at his administration being sidled with helping run a hospital seethes just beneath the surface as he talks about it.
"We’ve been working on this (sale) two years," said Baker. "I’ve probably been in 100 three-hour sessions about it.
"I hope people will agree to sell it."
Of five bidders, at least four have offered purchase prices that will retire the hospital bond debt and leave profits of about $10-$15 million. One bidder’s purchase proposal amount would not even pay off the debt.
And, depending on who buys it – if voters approve the sale – it could be a boon for tax revenues. Tax assessor/collector David Garner said several bidders are for-profit companies that would pay property taxes amounting to "millions of dollars over the long-term."
At least one of the bidders, Baptist Health Services, is a not-for-profit operation that would be exempt from property taxes.
"We’re taking all those things into consideration," said Panola County supervisor Jerry Perkins.
He said the three main criteria he and his colleagues examine in the bid proposals, in order of importance, are: 1) who provides the best health care; 2) who will retain current employees; and 3) who leaves the most money on the table.
Perkins said that if voters do approve the sale, the winning bidder will be announced after the election; he said there would be conditions included in any sale contract, "strict restrictions for safeguarding the community." A buyer, for example, couldn’t purchase it and, in the future, close it as a community hospital.
Avant pointed out that a not-for-profit bidder would not necessarily be shut out over the tax revenue issue: "Baptist is one of three serious contenders because of what it brings to the table."
Avant said the three top prospects’ purchase bids are fairly close, around $35 million.