Since 2010, nine rural hospitals in Tennessee have either closed or dropped inpatient services, including Parkridge West Hospital in Jasper, Tenn., Copper Basin Medical Center in eastern Polk County and Starr Regional Hospital in Etowah, Tenn.
Erlanger Health System wants to help reverse that decline next year, at least in the Sequatchie Valley, by investing nearly $37 million to build and equip a new 25-bed hospital in Dunlap, Tenn., and replace the 46-year-old Erlanger Bledsoe Hospital in Pikeville, Tenn., with an emergency department.
"Rural populations are at risk due to limited, or no access, to essential healthcare services," Erlanger said in its 458-page application to build the new Erlanger Sequatchie Valley Regional Hospital in Dunlap, Tenn.
Joe Winick, senior vice president of planning and business development for Erlanger, said Erlanger's Bledsoe Hospital — originally built in 1971 — is outdated and too costly to repair. The Dunlap hospital would be better located to serve Sequatchie, Bledsoe and Grundy counties, he said.
"We're looking forwarded to presenting our proposal to the state next month," Winick said.
The Tennessee Health Services and Development Agency will consider Erlanger's request to build the new Dunlap hospital and Pikeville emergency facility at its next meeting on Dec. 13 in Nashville. Under Tennessee law, hospitals must obtain a certificate of need to justify building new hospitals and making major capital investments.
As a major regional hospital, Erlanger is able to operate satellite hospitals in nearby rural communities more cost efficiently than stand-alone hospitals in such counties, Winick said. Erlanger uses its rural hospitals for emergency or primary health care needs in smaller counties and can still offer to immediately transfer trauma and more serious medical cases to the main Erlanger hospital in Chattanooga on one of its six Lifeforce helicopters.
Erlanger also is negotiating a possible lease or management contract to take over operations of the Murphy Medical Center in western North Carolina. Erlanger signed a letter of intent with Murphy Medical in June to either purchase, lease or manage the 25-bed hospital in Murphy.
Erlanger has already stationed one of its helicopters at the Western Carolina Regional Airport in nearby Andrews, N.C.
"We're a small, rural hospital and hospitals like us are more and more threatened in terms of sustainability," Murphy Medical Center CEO J. Michael Stevenson said when the negotiating agreement was signed earlier this year. "Although we're not in any risk of closing our doors any time soon, we do believe that planning for our future is important to minimize disruptions that could happen. In looking at industry trends, we believe that having a big partner or being part of a bigger system is going to be more of a solution for the future."
Last year, Murphy Medical solicited offers for partnerships, leases or the possible purchase of the hospital from major hospitals in the region. Erlanger and Duke Life Point responded to the request, but Duke later withdrew its offer.
Winick said Erlanger is still in talks with Murphy Medical.
Contact Dave Flessner at email@example.com or at 757-6340.