Originally created 06/14/05

St. Joseph could be closing



St. Joseph Hospital could be on its deathbed.

On Monday, Ascension Health, the nonprofit health system that operates the 232-bed hospital, announced that the hospital would either close or be sold or downsized.

The move is a result of the more than 50-year-old institution's inability to compete in a tough Augusta market, St. Joseph CEO Andy Lasser said.

"We've been continuing to try to stabilize ourself in the community during the past five years, but unfortunately the economy kind of catches up with you," he said.

Last month, the Catholic hospital cut 100 jobs after severing ties with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia Inc., its largest managed-care contractor.

The hospital employs about 700 full-time employees.

Officials with St. Louis-based Ascension have yet to decide which option it will pursue, but they said they hope to make a decision within the next 75 days.

During that period, they will put together a request soliciting offers for the hospital, said Laura Kaiser, the company's vice president for health ministry positioning and operations.

Officials said they do not know whether they would sell the whole hospital or just parts of it, she said.

"We're going to look for different things we want the buyer to have, and we may stipulate that we want certain parts to be broken out of the sale," she said.

It is too early to tell which of the three options is most likely to happen, Ms. Kaiser said. One thing that is sure is that big changes will be made.

"We knew the financial situation that was occurring ... but we hoped that there would be an alternative to what Ascension was providing us," said Augusta businessman Preston Sizemore, of St. Joseph's board of directors. "But they are the owners of the hospital, and we serve as volunteers."

Augusta resident Owen Smitherman, 79, has gone to St. Joseph since the hospital was built.

"I really hate to see something like this happen," he said.

He said St. Joseph is still his first choice for medical care.

"I came in when I had pneumonia a couple of weeks ago, and it was the finest treatment I ever had," he said.

Mr. Lasser said administrators do not expect to make any operational changes while Ascension weighs its decision, adding that customers will be given plenty of notice once decisions are made.

"We hope people don't lose confidence in us while we go through this decision process; we hope to be able to take care of people," he said.

Although the closure of St. Joseph likely would mean new patients for competing local hospitals, medical care should not be taken for granted, said Don Snell, the president and CEO of MCG Health Inc., which operates the Medical College of Georgia's hospital and clinic network.

"This announcement only serves to further underscore how health care facilities need the support of our communities and governments," he said.

Reach Adrian Burns at (706) 823-3352 or adrian.burns@augustachronicle.com.

What's Next:

Officials with St. Joseph Hospital's parent company, Ascension Health, will spend the next 60 to 75 days making a decision on whether to sell, close or downsize the hospital. It is still unclear how quickly a decision will be implemented once it is made.