published Saturday, April 6th, 2013

CEO floats new status for Erlanger

The Erlanger Baroness campus.
The Erlanger Baroness campus.
Photo by Staff File Photo.

THE STORY SO FAR

* February: General Assembly passes legislation revamping Erlanger board; Gov. Bill Haslam signs off on the bill.

* March: Hamilton County Commission, which must approve the legislation, balks at key provisions, including appointment of initial nine board members and future requirements to pay for indigent care.

* April: State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, delays a bill allowing Hamilton County to cremate local residents who die with no money for burial in an effort to prod commissioners to take an up or down vote on the Erlanger legislation. Commissioners say that is unlikely.

Erlanger's new CEO sees opportunity where others see stalemate in a bill to change the hospital's governance structure.

Legislation to revamp the board of trustees, approved by the General Assembly and signed by Gov. Bill Haslam, died last month on the floor of the Hamilton County Commission for lack of support from commissioners.

Kevin Spiegel, who took the hospital's helm Monday, offered another option.

"I don't believe the [current] bill is going to go back this year. I think it's dead-dead-dead," he said Friday. "But I think it will be back next year, and I think it will include the provision for the hospital to become a 501(c)3."

Such a move, he said, "would put the hospital on a more equal playing field going forward."

The nonprofit route is what the hospital wanted all along, trustee Phyllis Miller said.

"It very much needs to be done. It sounds like a 501(c)3 is the direction most people want to go in," she said.

The political gridlock surrounding Erlanger and the proposed board restructuring has hampered how trustees are operating, she said.

"Just a few weeks ago we thought we'd be replaced," Miller said. Strategic decisions are almost impossible right now, he said.

"Long range right now is day-to-day," Miller said.

Trustee Mike Griffin said the board has no choice but to proceed each month with "business as usual."

Erlanger is $4.5 million in the red so far this year. Last year, the hospital lost $9.5 million, records show.

Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, who spearheaded the initial bill, did not comment on the potential for the hospital to become a private nonprofit institution.

However, he said lawmakers have options that could skirt the County Commission.

"We have the authority to go through and pass this as a bill without the County Commission," McCormick said, adding that he would rather the two governing bodies work out their differences.

He warned a bill passed next year could leave out provisions beneficial to the county government -- like one that allows the county attorney to identify county inmates as indigent. That would mean the sheriff's office would be on the hook for prisoners' hospital bills.

County Commissioner Joe Graham bristled at the suggestions.

"If the state delegation wants to delicately threaten Hamilton County to have us pay all this money, they'll just have to consider and explain that to our voters -- the same ones who elected them to office," Graham said.

Currently, the county provides $1.5 million to the hospital annually for indigent care. The hospital provided $85.5 million in uncompensated care for patients in the region last year alone.

Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at kharrison@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673. Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6481.

about Louie Brogdon...

Louie Brogdon began reporting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press in February 2013. Before he came to the Scenic City, Louie lived on St. Simons Island, Ga. and covered crime, courts, environment and government at the Brunswick News, a 17,000-circulation daily on the Georgia coast. While there, he was awarded for investigative reporting on police discipline and other law enforcement issues by the Georgia Press Association. For the Times Free Press, Louie covers Hamilton County ...

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