Originally created 04/12/06

St. Joseph trims buyers' list to one

St. Joseph Hospital has identified a new potential buyer but is working carefully through its preliminary negotiations to make sure this proposed sale turns out better than the last one, Interim CEO Elaine Comeau said.

The hospital and its corporate sponsor, Ascension Health, had received three bids from for-profit hospital companies and whittled them down to one this week, Ms. Comeau said. Confidentiality agreements prohibit officials from saying who it is, she said, but it is not a local company or hospital.

The two sides are now working through their preliminary discussions, and the for-profit company will be talking with some of the hospital's physicians about potential partnerships. Ms. Comeau said.

Though it would no longer be nonprofit or Catholic, the company is interested in keeping it as a faith-based hospital, she said.

"They realize it is a niche in the community. We're the only faith-based hospital, and they appreciate that and want to continue that," Ms. Comeau said. "But it wouldn't be associated with any one religion."

St. Joseph and Ascension thought they had an agreement to sell the hospital for $75 million to Health Management Associates of Naples, Fla., but, just a day before a required public hearing, the for-profit company withdrew.

It cited declining physician support - which St. Joseph disputes - in an e-mail to the Georgia attorney general, who must approve converting a nonprofit hospital to a for-profit.

Having been through that, St. Joseph was hoping for more binding protection through a bill pushed by Sen. Ed Tarver, D-Augusta, but that bill stalled in the House of Representatives.

St. Joseph and Ascension still hope to have an announcement in the next couple of weeks on who the bidder is, Ms. Comeau said.

"That's what everybody is going to be real careful on, the negotiations now before it's announced, that everybody is comfortable and it's going to go forward," she said.

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


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