Deadline looming for Hamilton County lawmakers' Erlanger decision

With the Tennessee General Assembly's current session winding down, there is little time left for local lawmakers to bring forward legislation allowing Erlanger Health System to become a non-governmental entity.

On March 2, the Hamilton County Commission unanimously passed a resolution requesting that the legislative delegation propose an amendment to the 1976 private act that created the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Hospital Authority - commonly known as Erlanger Health System.

The resolution asked for an amendment that would allow the county to evaluate whether the continued operation of Erlanger as a hospital authority - which is a public entity governed by a politically-appointed board of trustees - is "an effective or beneficial governmental function."

Both Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and Erlanger's Board of Trustees have said they believe transitioning the health system, which is the Chattanooga region's only safety net hospital and academic medical center, to independent nonprofit governance would help Erlanger compete against the area's private hospitals.

Coppinger said he was told the county's request is still under consideration.

"We all realize that the session is coming to a close in the next few weeks, and we're anxiously awaiting whether or not it'll move forward," he said.

Erlanger Board Chairman Jim Coleman said via email Tuesday that trustees are "deeply appreciative of the delegation's thoughtful and deliberate consideration" of the county's request.

"The General Assembly is considering many important issues, and we are optimistic that legislation will be advanced before the adjournment of this year's legislative session," Coleman said. "Securing the future of Erlanger as the region's safety-net health care provider is critical for the people of Hamilton County and the region. The board remains committed to moving forward with the important work to transition the health system to independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit status."

Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, chairwoman of the local delegation, said Tuesday that the delegation is reviewing proposed legislation.

In the past, Hazlewood has said such legislation can be acted upon quickly once introduced, because bills concerning private acts don't go through the regular committee process.

Erlanger comprises seven hospitals, including the only children's hospital within 100 miles. The system nets more than $1 billion revenue annually and employs roughly 6,300 full- and part-time workers as of June 30, making it Hamilton County's largest employer.

It's also home to the region's only Level 1 trauma center, which treats the most severe injuries, and the Southeast Regional Stroke Center, which provides the highest level of stroke care.

On top of those costly specialty services, the health system is the largest area provider for low-income and uninsured patients. Last year, Erlanger provided around $150 million worth of uncompensated care - a figure that has grown 36% in four years.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673. Follow her on Twitter @ecfite.