The deal is on.
Trustees on two boards in charge of Hutcheson Medical Center, the Fort Oglethorpe hospital losing $1 million a month, agreed Tuesday to vacate their positions and relinquish considerable power, paving the way for a partnership with Chattanooga's largest hospital.
Tonight, Erlanger Health System's board is expected to finalize a management agreement that will pump a $20 million line of credit into the ailing North Georgia hospital.
Hutcheson Medical Center Inc. and Hutcheson Health Enterprises Inc. decided to cede operating power to the Hospital Authority of Walker, Dade and Catoosa Counties - a nine-member group of political appointees that owns the hospital building and oversees the lease - sending a wave of relief over those who survived the North Georgia hospital's recent round of 75 layoffs.
"I feel like we're in the clear now," said Gina Derryberry, a labor and delivery nurse at Hutcheson.
In the last year, Hutcheson has defaulted on a $35 million bond and hired a consulting firm to create a plan to reduce personnel. Several Hospital Authority members blamed the other boards for "bankrupting" Hutcheson, creating hostility within the community hospital's corporate structure.
The Hospital Authority's pro-Erlanger vote was contingent on replacing members from both operating boards with the Hospital Authority's own trustees.
After opening the joint meeting 20 minutes late, both boards entered what became a two-hour closed session, locking out Hospital Authority members, the media and several hospital employees fresh off their shifts.
At one point, Walker County Attorney and Hospital Authority counsel Don Oliver said he was pessimistic. He indicated that Erlanger may be able to go forward without an overarching agreement from Hutcheson's four boards, but also "without our assets and money."
As part of the Erlanger agreement, Catoosa and Walker counties have pledged $10 million each to temporarily back up the Chattanooga hospital's $20 million line of credit.
But concerned faces relaxed when both boards opened the meeting to spectators and agreed to give their board seats to Hospital Authority trustees, pending Erlanger's approval of the management agreement.
Still, doubts remained.
"We're not going to read something in the paper that you don't like, where we'll have to have another meeting, right Don?" one hospital employee asked Oliver, leaning in close.
The attorney didn't answer the question directly, but said the Hospital Authority would approve the Hutcheson boards' agreement to cede power in a separate meeting scheduled for tonight.
"I don't foresee any problems," he said.