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Will hospital takeover create long term stability?

The administrative takeover at Pearl River County Hospital and Nursing Home should provide debt relief, but one supervisor still has concerns about guaranteeing the hospital doors stay open long term.

The Pearl River County Board of Supervisors signed a resolution Monday to move forward with leasing the Pearl River County Hospital and Nursing Home to Forrest Health.

The goal of the change in day-to-day hospital administration is to create long-term financial stability for the hospital, according to previous coverage.

Currently the county collects a tax levy of one mill countywide to help fund the hospital, said County Administrator Adrain Lumpkin. He said it’s typically been used to pay the note on the facility. The Board can only levy taxes once a year in October, said Lumpkin. If/when the lease with Forrest Health is finalized, the Board can decide whether to stop levying that tax or to maintain it to build up an escrow in case the hospital needs additional funding when the Board levies taxes annually, said Lumpkin.

“Rural hospitals are something that’s getting very, very hard to keep afloat and this is going to be the best way for us to keep this hospital vibrant and productive at this time,” said District V Supervisor Sandy Kane Smith.

Along with the challenges of operating as a rural hospital, the hospital is paying a debt to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services due to alleged fraud perpetrated by former hospital administrators, according to previous coverage. County Administrator Adrain Lumpkin said the debt still owed is approximately $2.9 million.

The lease arrangement includes terms that Forrest Health will pay off the debt with money upfront at the initial takeover, said Highland Community Hospital Regional Administrator Bryan Maxie.

Smith, and District II Supervisor Malcolm Perry both said they cannot say much about the lease agreement until it is finalized, but both believe it is a good deal for the county.

“There’s been a cloud of uncertainty and with that cloud of uncertainty being there with the situation that the hospital’s been in, I’m really believing that this will provide some relief to the employees,” said District I Supervisor Donald Hart.

However, Monday’s resolution was not unanimous. District III Supervisor Hudson Holliday voted against the resolution. He said he did so because he wants language in the lease that guarantees Forrest Health will keep the emergency room and hospital components of the facility open long term.

“What I’m concerned about is that Forrest General doesn’t come in here at some time and say, ‘we’re going to shut the hospital and emergency room down and keep the nursing home.’ This community has got to have a nursing home and a hospital period. We cannot grow this community without it,” Holliday said.

Forrest Health intends to continue operating the facility as is, including the hospital, emergency room and nursing home, said Maxie.

“With that being said, the viability of all of that depends on the federal government, so that could change at any point. Based on the amount of money that we’re investing in that facility, it’s in our best interest that it all stay open in operation so that we can get a return on our investment.”

The hospital is designated as a critical access hospital and will keep that status for at least three more years, said Smith. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services assigns the designation. Hospitals with that designation receive benefits meant to reduce their financial vulnerability, according to the Rural Health Information Hub website.

Initially, two medical companies, Forrest Health and Gulfport Memorial, expressed interest in assuming the day to day administration of Poplarville’s hospital, according to previous coverage.

Representatives from both organizations that proposed taking it over said it would be difficult for them to maintain the emergency room without the critical access designation, said Smith. However, there are other funding options if the hospital lost that designation, said Smith.

“Mr. Holliday’s concern is to make sure those options are chased if that should happen,” Smith said.

Smith said he believes the size of Forrest Health will make it easier to fight to keep the critical access status than if the hospital were trying to maintain that designation on its own.

Taking over the hospital’s administration is a growth strategy for Forrest Health, Maxie said, and their top priority will be to keep the beds full. Forrest Health views it as an expansion of Forrest General, and believes the beds in Pearl River County Hospital’s acute care will allow Forrest General to free up some beds for more serious cases, Maxie said.

“There should be no fear by the residents that Forrest General is coming in to shut everything down, because that’s the furthest from the truth,” said Maxie.

Holliday said he may sign the lease if the wording is changed.

The Board will discuss the lease further at the Jan. 22 Board meeting.