JONESBORO — Clayton County commissioners will gain some oversight over the affairs of Southern Regional Medical Center in return for setting aside $50 million in Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax funds to help the hospital financially, the center’s top executive announced Tuesday.
Southern Regional CEO Jim Crissey announced during a SPLOST forum that the hospital has agreed to let the commission have a say in who sits in some seats on the board of directors. That oversight, which county officials said should be permanent, will give elected officials the oversight they previously said would be necessary to agree to spending tax dollars on a bailout of Southern Regional.
The hospital has asked the county for the money to offset annual losses its leadership has repeatedly said it is incurring because of an unfunded federal mandate to provide care to emergency room indigent patients regardless of their ability to pay.
“If the SPLOST passes, Southern Regional has agreed to allow the county to appoint four board seats to the health system’s board of directors,” said Crissey. “Two of those board seats will also be on the executive committee of the health system board of directors. That’s accountability built in.”
There are two boards in the county that deal with the hospital. There is the Clayton County Hospital Authority Board, which is already appointed by commissioners, that deals with the property. However, the day-to-day operations of the hospital is run by the Southern Regional Health System Board of Directors.
The commission currently does not get to appoint any members of the board of directors, but commission Chairman Jeff Turner said that had to change if the county was going to make a financial commitment to the hospital.
“We’ve gotta have it,” said Turner. “If we’re going to pay that kind of money to help bail them out, we need to be a part of the decision-making process because everybody expects, and we expect, to know what’s their long-term plan.”
As the May 20 SPLOST referendum approaches, some officials are raising warning flags and saying the county would be negatively impacted if Southern Regional closes because of its financial situation.
“It would be catastrophic, because if you go downtown to Grady, if you’re out of county [patients], you’re going to have to pay a lot of money” said Riverdale Mayor Evelyn Winn-Dixon. Riverdale and Lovejoy have agreed to give up $2.9 million and $600,000 of their SPLOST allocations, respectively, to help the hospital.
Crissey added, “There would be no inpatient care, no outpatient care, there would be no emergency care. I don’t think anybody in this room, or anybody in this community, wants to be in the back of an ambulance trying to make it all the way downtown at 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon, much less going south at 4 p.m. on a Friday afternoon when they are having a minor cardiac event.
“That would be traumatic and it would be a disservice to the community,” he added.
But questions and concerns linger about the agreement to put the hospital on the SPLOST project list and those issues are being raised by both residents and Southern Regional staff members.
Resident Felicia Warner asked Crissey twice during the forum what the hospital’s long-term goals and plans were.
“I don’t want us, as a community, to be sold a bill of fear,” said Warner. “I don’t want us to make a decision because of fear because often times we don’t pay attention to the details.”
Crissey told her the hospital has already eliminated 61 positions and is looking at programs that can be cut due to poor financial performance.
However, Warner later told commissioners at their meeting that she didn’t feel like her questions about the long-term 10-15 year plans had been addressed adequately.
Some Southern Regional doctors, meanwhile, questioned expenses made in recent years and said more attention and critical analysis should be paid to how the hospital spends money — dollars which Crissey said was spent to buy state of the art equipment and bring in consultants who are experts on the technology.
But some doctors said the hospital should try looking closer to home when seeking advice.
“It seems that in years past, we’ve been able to bring in consultants to the hospital from all over the United States, but yet we have residents right here in this county that have very little input into the process [and] very little input into the business affairs of the hospital,” said neurologist Dr. Rick Stappenbeck.
“I hope that will change because I think we’ve got valuable insight into some things and I hope in the future there will be more of an open door policy from the standpoint of the administration,” he added.