Erlanger Life Force expands to western North Carolina

Erlanger Life Force expands to western North Carolina

Hospital negotiates to take over Murphy Medical Center

June 28th, 2017 by Dave Flessner in Business Around the Region

A Life Force helicopter lands at Erlanger hospital in this 2006 file photo.

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

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Erlanger signs letter of intent to partner with Murphy, N.C., hospital

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Erlanger’s flight path

* 1988 - Erlanger launches Life Force

* 1995 - Sparta, Tenn., base added

* 2006 - Calhoun, Ga., base added

* 2010 - Blue Ridge, Ga., base added

* 2015 - Winchester, Tenn., base added

* 2008 - Erlanger transferred helicopter aviation equipment and staff to Med-Trans Corp.

Chattanooga's biggest hospital will soon extend its market into western North Carolina by stationing a helicopter in Cherokee County and perhaps taking over the Murphy Medical Center.

Erlanger Health System announced Tuesday it has signed a letter of intent to either purchase, lease or manage the 25-bed Murphy Medical Center hospital in western North Carolina and will soon station the sixth Erlanger Life Force helicopter at the Western Carolina Regional Airport in Andrews, N.C.

For Erlanger, the moves should help bring critical care patients to Erlanger's main hospital from a wider area as part of the hospital's growth toward becoming the region's first billion-dollar-a-year health care system by fiscal 2018.

For the only hospital in Cherokee County, N.C., the sale or alliance with Erlanger should help it to attract more surgeons and physicians, provide a better continuum of care for those coming to Murphy Medical and help ensure the future of the 38-year-old hospital.

"We're a small, rural hospital and hospitals like us are more and more threatened in terms of sustainability," said J. Michael Stevenson, CEO and chairman of Murphy Medical Center for the past 29 years. "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 a solution in the future."

About Murphy Medical Center

* Location: Murphy, N.C.

* Owner: Started by the town of Murphy in 1979 with a government hospital authority board, the hospital was converted to a private, nonprofit ownership structure in the early 1990s

* Staff: 550 employees, including about 100 in the nursing home.

* Size: Licensed for 57 acute-care hospital beds, as a critical care access hospital, Murphy Medical operates 25 hospital beds. The facility also has 134 nursing home beds, including 14 for Alzheimer’s Disease, which will soon be transferred to Century Care Management.

* Finances: In the first 11 months of the current fiscal year, the hospital lost $1.9 million on $58 million in net patient revenues.

* Manager: Carolinas HealthCare System in Charlotte, N.C.

* Market area: 45,000 residents in Cherokee, Graham and Clay counties in western North Carolina

Source: Murphy Medical Center

Last year, Murphy Medical Center solicited offers from other hospitals for lease, management or sales agreements. Erlanger, which operates four hospital facilities in Hamilton and Bledsoe counties, and Duke Life Point, which operates three other hospitals in western North Carolina, both expressed interest in taking over Murphy Medical. But Stevenson said Duke Life later withdrew its bid.

"We've enjoyed a good, strong relationship with Erlanger for a number of years and have used Erlanger hospitalists at our center for the past year," Stevenson said.

Murphy Medical Center includes a 134-bed nursing home, which Stevenson said the hospital is negotiating to lease and turn over management of the nursing home operations to Century Care Management Inc., based in Cary, N.C.

"We're looking to try to close our deal with them by Sept. 30 and our plan is to lease our nursing home facility and let them operate it while they build a new facility," he said.

Erlanger also is looking to negotiate a takeover of the hospital portion of Murphy Medical by this fall, although there is no specific deadline or agreement yet for any such change.

Erlanger is committed, even in advance of any takeover of the Murphy hospital, to add a Life Force base in Andrews, N.C., to expand its helicopter rescue and transport services by August.

The expansion will add another three or four counties to the 63 counties in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama now served by Erlanger' Life Force helicopters, which last year handled more than 2,500 patient transfers.

"This puts our resources out into these rural communities which are not close to tertiary care hospitals and puts these critical care services into these areas," said Robbie Tester, a vice president of operations for Erlanger. "For an ambulance to commute someone from Murphy, N.C., to Erlanger is about a two to two and a half hour transport — there's not an easy way to get here from there. A helicopter can make that trip in 25 minutes or less."

That quicker response can mean the difference between life and death, Tester said.

Erlanger has been serving parts of western North Carolina from its helicopter stationed in Blue Ridge, Ga., but Tester said the new Life Force unit in Andrews, N.C., will speed emergency pickups, especially in many rural parts of Cherokee and surrounding counties in the mountains of western North Carolina.

Erlanger's Life Force staff totals more than 80 clinicians at the existing five helicopter bases and other communications staff who work in the Erlanger Regional Operations Center (EROC) at Erlanger's main campus.

"We are extremely pleased that Life Force is now expanding 'critical care in the air' services even further into the western North Carolina region," Erlanger CEO Kevin Spiegel said in an announcement Tuesday. "Placement of this air ambulance in North Carolina is the result of working closely with surrounding hospitals, state and elected officials for several years. Their overwhelming support has enabled thousands of residents to have quicker access to the region's trauma center when they need it most."

Contact Dave Flessner at or at 423-757-6340.