Originally created 07/11/97

Barnwell Council gives support to consolidated hospital



The Barnwell County Council has given its full support to the possibility of a consolidated hospital - a project shrouded in reservations.

Topping a long list of concerns is:

- Whether the health-care provider would serve indigents.

- If the cost for care would considerably increase.

- And whether the 150 employees of Barnwell County Hospital would lose their jobs.

"About 40 percent of our community is not excited about this idea," said Councilman Flowe Trexler, referring to a proposal made by the South Carolina Division of Columbia Healthcare Corp. The Charleston-based company has recommended building a $40 million hospital in the Barnwell-Bamberg-Allendale area.

The council passed a resolution Tuesday night directing the Tri-County Economic Development Alliance to study the proposal before members commit to the project. Included in the decision was the stipulation that a panel be formed to scrutinize the proposal, which could also be open to other health-care providers.

"Indigent care and a basic distrust of the HCA are primary concerns of our community," Mr. Trexler said. "What happens if this project goes sour? Our hospital will be lost forever. And what about the extra cost to our patients?"

If approved, the project would result in the immediate elimination of county subsidies for the existing hospitals and increase the tax base in each county. The increase in local taxes could be shared by the three counties through an equitable revenue mechanism.

Barnwell is the only local government in the tri-county area that helps fund its hospital - costing taxpayers an additional 24 mills annually or $96 for the owner of a $100,000 home.

The site would be constructed at a "mutually agreed upon" location, Mr. Trexler said.

Columbia would operate the existing hospitals through a lease or management agreement during the construction phase. Once the site is built, Columbia will assist the counties in determining the most appropriate use of those facilities.

Tom McDougal Jr., who manages the Barnwell facility for Baptist Healthcare, also questions Columbia's dedication to indigent patients "since they are a for-profit operation that will be located in a rural community.

"I don't have any strong feelings one way or the other right now ... because I just haven't been given enough information to form a substantial opinion," Mr. McDougal said. "But I do think that indigent care should remain a top priority for any health care provider."

But Frank DeMarco, president of Columbia Healthcare's South Carolina division, said that should not be a concern.

"Our doors will be open to anyone, regardless of their ability to pay," he said, noting that the organization is faced with a similar situation in Walterboro, S.C. "We are familiar with the economic situation here and we will be committed to serving them."

Other facilities in the network are located in Augusta, Columbia, Charleston, S.C., Summerville, S.C. and Myrtle Beach, S.C.