RINGGOLD, Ga.-None of Hutcheson Medical Center's leaders, nor county commissioners, were spared the frustration and anger of North Georgia residents at a public town hall meeting held Thursday, where residents peppered county leaders with questions about the future of the struggling community hospital.
County commissioners from Dade, Catoosa and Walker counties, as well as legal representation from the Hutcheson Medical Center Inc. board, heard repeated pleas that they ensure the hospital stays open. Close to 200 people attended the public forum, held at the Colonnade Center in Ringgold.
For more than three hours, attendees voiced frustration at hold-ups in partnership negotiations with Erlanger Health System in Chattanooga, disgust at a $69,000 bonus awarded to the hospital's recently resigned chief executive, Charles Stewart, and ardent respect for the hospital's remaining staff members.
Walker County resident James Jones, a part-time Hutcheson employee, said "the employees have really went through the mill the past six months."
"Four months ago we thought Erlanger was going to come in and everyone was going to be secure," he said. "The politics need to be put aside and put in there what the people need. ... Quit (complaining) about who's going to be in charge."
THE STORY SO FAR
Hutcheson Medical Center in Fort Oglethorpe is losing $1 million a month and has lost more than $7 million in each of the past two fiscal years. It is in default on its $35 million bond and its President and CEO Charles Stewart and interim Chief Financial Officer Gerald Faircloth recently resigned. In the midst of the turmoil, hospital leaders have been negotiating a strategic partnership with Erlanger Health System in Chattanooga in an effort to bring back doctors, and their patient referrals, to the community hospital.
Erlanger is willing to front at least $20 million to help Hutcheson get back on its feet, at which point Hutcheson would pay the money back, so long as Dade, Catoosa and Walker counties guarantee Erlanger's loan, county leaders said.
Attendees seemed divided over whether county commissioners were to be accused of slowing negotiations with Erlanger by demanding more involvement in hospital operations, or whether they should be praised for seeking to hold hospital leaders more accountable to taxpayers.
Attendees were assured talks with Erlanger are moving forward, even though no official contract has been signed.
Ward Nelson, attorney for Hutcheson Medical Center Inc., said Erlanger leaders indicated Thursday they plan to approve a yet-unfinalized contract with Hutcheson.
"They did want me to announce that they are comfortable with it. They are on board," Nelson said.
A couple blanks still must be filled in, including a finalized total of how much Erlanger will invest in helping Hutcheson get out of the red, which will likely be at least $20 million.
Erlanger's board, county commissioners and Hutcheson's boards will also have to approve the contract, he said.
"We are just, I'm talking days, if not hours as far as I'm concerned, of getting this done and getting Erlanger in here," said Dade County Executive Ted Rumley. "Time is of the essence."
Hospital employees spoke often at the forum, conveying the strain of months of uncertainty and a sense they are not being heard.
"We feel like we have no voice," said Don Bethune, security manager at Hutcheson. "What would be the possibility of having an employee representative sit on the board whenever it's restructured?"
Amy Head, a nurse at Hutcheson's wound center, asked about how Erlanger will bring physicians back to the hospital, where an exodus of doctors has depleted patient volumes.
"You can walk the halls and see that we don't have any patients there," she said. "Get our physicians back because we miss our physicians."
Catoosa County Commissioner Keith Greene said Erlanger has committed to recruit and pay the salaries of 15 additional physicians at Hutcheson, in addition to fronting millions to help Hutcheson pay down its debts and maintain operations.
The counties will pledge the hospital building as collateral, and the property would go to Erlanger in the case that Hutcheson could not pay Erlanger back, Nelson said.
But commissioners do not believe it would ever come to that.
"That's why we've agreed to back it ... because we believe (Hutcheson) can grow and prosper and pay for itself," said Walker County Sole Commissioner Bebe Heiskell.
Erlanger also has estimated Hutcheson could get back to profitability in 18 to 20 months, commissioners said.
Another female employee questioned the judgment of the Hutcheson Medical Center Inc. board.
"I still have not gotten over the fact that Charles Stewart got a $69,000 bonus and we have not had a raise in five years," she said. She said she assumed the HMC board had to approve that bonus.
"What can we do to dissolve that board if they're going to throw money around like that?" she asked, and the crowd broke into applause.
"We're looking into the laws about maybe not dissolving it but changing who it answers to," Heiskell said
Heiskell said they need to look into the legalities of changing the board structure, but that dramatic changes are likely.
Nelson said HMC board members are open to that.
"All the members of those boards have indicated they will, if asked, resign upon the execution of the management agreement with Erlanger," he said.
Yet other attendees complained that county commissioners' intentions to oust to Hutcheson Medical Center Inc. board leaders and replace them with county-appointed board members, seem like a power grab. A number of attendees emphasized the desire to simplify the hospital's complicated board structure but only after a deal was finalized with Erlanger.
Commissioners issued a letter last week demanding a leading role in negotiations with Erlanger and a second letter that said commissioners want to re-appoint and restructure the boards.
"It's the wrong time. We don't have time for politics today," said one male employee of the hospital at the forum.