Originally created 02/15/06

St. Joseph is weighing its options



Still stunned by the abrupt withdrawal of a buyer, officials with St. Joseph Hospital and its parent company, Ascension Health of St. Louis, are now looking at other options and hoping for a resolution soon. Going out of business will not be one of them, an official said.

Less than 48 hours after they were notified Sunday night by Health Management Associates that it was withdrawing its $75 million offer to buy St. Joseph and its affiliated medical buildings and services, officials with Ascension were meeting and reassuring the staff and patients that it will continue on in the interim.

As late as Friday afternoon, HMA officials said they were still hoping to take over St. Joseph on March 1 and were meeting with local physicians.

"We have no idea what happened between Friday and Sunday other than something extraordinary must have happened to have had something like this unfold at this late, late stage," said Laura Kaiser, an Ascension vice president.

In a Webcast Tuesday from the UBS 2006 Global Healthcare Services Conference in New York, HMA officials made no mention of the St. Joseph deal in a confident presentation about the future of the for-profit hospital company. It already operates 60 hospitals in 16 states, including three in Georgia, and has identified 300 it is interested in and is hoping to add between five and seven this fiscal year, said CEO Joe Vumbacco.

"The hospital industry is a growth industry, and our acquisition philosophy will continue unchanged," Mr. Vumbacco said on the Webcast.

HMA officials did not return messages left at the company headquarters in Naples, Fla.

In a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission last week, the company reported lower than expected earnings and transactions that reduced the money available under its credit agreement to $60 million, although HMA said it also intended to use a provision that would allow it to raise its available credit by $150 million, according to the report. It was unclear if any of this had any impact on the aborted sale.

"We absolutely reviewed HMA from the standpoint of a good fit for this precious asset of ours to become a part of their family," Ms. Kaiser said.

"We wanted to be sure that this was a good cultural fit, and it appeared to be, until this latest move."

In an e-mail sent to the Georgia Attorney General's Office, HMA said the referral pattern of physicians and operations had deteriorated since the sale commenced.

Ms. Kaiser confirmed that was the reason Ascension was given, but she disagrees with that conclusion. In fact, her immediate concern is "getting the word out that we remain a viable, high-quality organization that is in business, caring for our patients," she said.

HMA was one of three finalists for the sale, selected from 18 organizations that had expressed interest in St. Joseph, according to sale documents. Ascension's financial advisers will begin contacting the other bidders soon as they consider their options, Ms. Kaiser said. But it won't be folding its hand.

"I would take closure off the table," she said. "We had options of sale and reconfiguration. I feel that those are viable options, and we will explore those fully."

They are hoping to have a decision within "days and weeks," Ms. Kaiser said.

On the way in to St. Joseph on Tuesday afternoon to visit his wife, Betty, who is recovering from knee-replacement surgery, Roger Lamb said he could see both sides. The retired physician assistant used to work in an HMA hospital in Florida and was sporting a "Naples, Fla." sweatshirt.

"HMA is a very well-run organization, and they don't put their money out unless they are sure," said Mr. Lamb, 64. "They were a good company to work for. They took care of their employees But they were also very demanding. The bottom line was what they were all about, and as long as you produced for them they took care of you."

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or tom.corwin@augustachronicle.com.