THOMSON — Frances Darden summed up the feelings of many at a public hearing Thursday on the sale of McDuffie Regional Medical Center to University Hospital.
“I feel as if the cavalry has just arrived,” the longtime schoolteacher said.
The Georgia Attorney General’s office was required to hold the hearing to get public comment as part of the approval process. A decision is expected within 30 days, said hearing officer and Assistant Attorney General Audrey M. Seidle.
The move had previously generated controversy because University plans to build a replacement hospital near Interstate 20 miles from its current downtown location. But in a packed hearing room not a single voice rose to object to the sale. Part of that might be that people are seeing that the hospital just cannot survive on its own for much longer, said William J. Doupé, the chairman of the Hospital Authority of McDuffie County.
The hospital began losing money toward the end of 2009 and it “seemed to accelerate,” he said. “We were living off all of our reserves.”
With little access to capital to make needed renovations and reimbursements dwindling, “all of the roadmaps were leading to closure,” Doupé said.
Authority member John Seay was even more blunt: If the trend were allowed to continue “we will not have a hospital in Thomson by the end of the year, it’s sad to say.”
But the board did not want to give up local control and also did not want to add another deserted building to downtown, Doupé said.
“We did not want to leave an empty box on that side of town,” he said, echoing concerns also voiced by city leaders.
University had made an offer to buy the hospital and build the replacement and was eventually persuaded to find a new purpose for the old building. University is in talks with the Family Y on using part of the building, University CEO Jim Davis said.
If approved, University’s plan for McDuffie Regional can be summed up as “stabilize, improve and grow,” Davis said.
Interim CEO Sandra McVicker is already at work on the plan for stabilization and there has been a modest improvement in patient volumes, which has been one of the main problems for the hospital. Moving the hospital to the Interstate 20 site will double the number of people who live within a 20-minute drive of the facility, Davis said.
University also has volume buying and discounts that McDuffie doesn’t and, with a 600-physician medical staff, can offer sub-specialties the smaller hospital can’t. In fact, the improvement in efficiencies and potential increases in patient volume could add $6 million to $8 million a year in community benefit, said David McMillan of Pershing Yoakley and Associates, a financial consultant hired by the hospital authority.
That might even be conservative, said Bridget Bourgeois of Ernst & Young, a valuation consultant for the attorney general’s office hired to analyze the sale. She said the benefit could be closer to $9 million to $14 million.
Overall, McMillan said, the community benefit of building a $25 million to $30 million replacement hospital, the preservation of jobs and improvements in revenue could provide a community benefit of $49 million to $58 million.
Still, there were plenty of “hard arguments” among the medical staff about the sale until University “convinced us they were interested in our community,” Chief of Staff Dr. Joe Wills said.
The physicians and the authority “drove a hard bargain and I think they did well by you and by themselves,” University interventional cardiologist Mac Bowman said. But he is “absolutely excited” about the move because it combines the two things he prizes most – his hometown of Thomson and University, where he is a physician leader.
“Bringing those two together is “such a natural marriage of cultures because we are so similar,” Bowman said.