Southern Regional Medical Center President Jim Crissey explains the hospital’s financial needs to county commissioners before a vote on the proposed SPLOST project list Tuesday. The list includes $50 million to assist the hospital. (Staff Photo: Curt Yeomans)
JONESBORO — The fate of Southern Regional Medical Center will rest in the hands of Clayton County voters in two months.
County commissioners approved a $272 million project list for the proposed 2015 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax referendum by a 3-1 vote Tuesday night. Chief among the projects on the list is $50 million in assistance to Southern Regional.
Hospital officials have said they need financial support from the county to offset losses caused by unfunded federal mandates. Federal law forbids them from turning away patients from Southern Regional’s emergency room, regardless of whether the patient can pay for the medical care.
The inclusion of the hospital bond payments essentially makes the May 20 SPLOST vote a high stakes decision for the county. Commission Chairman Jeff Turner said Clayton County could lose its main health care facility if the SPLOST doesn’t pass.
Even delaying a vote until November could have been costly because there would have been an 80-day lapse in SPLOST collections if it passed, he said.
“According to all of the documentation that I’ve seen and heard from the hospital, they need immediate relief now,” said Turner. “If we wait until a November vote, the hospital will probably be closed by then."
The hospital money is not the largest allotment on the county’s $217.9 million portion of the SPLOST project list. Officials put $86.5 million in road and sidewalk projects on the list. However, with nearly one-quarter of the proposed funds slated for the hospital, it will likely get the most attention.
Turner said it will be Southern Regional’s responsibility to explain their need to voters because state law forbids county officials from advocating for, or against, the SPLOST.
“They need to get out in front of this thing,” Turner said.
Commissioner Sonna Singleton cast the lone vote against the project list. Singleton said she supported the hospital and thought it was vital to keep it open. However, she also said the referendum should have been delayed until November so more scrutiny could be given to the hospital’s long-term financial plans.
Southern Regional President Jim Crissey said the hospital does have a plan for fixing itself financially. That plan includes cutting expenses by at least $12 million per year. Included in that cost reduction plan was the recent elimination of 61 positions. Forty-three Southern Regional employees were laid off as a result of those cuts and the remaining positions were vacant.
Part of Southern Regional’s financial problem is that it provided more than $85 million in uncompensated health care to patients, Crissey said. The Federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act requires hospitals treat emergency room patients, regardless of whether they can pay for the care.
One-third of Georgia’s 159 counties provided financial assistance to their hospitals to offset the costs of uncompensated health care and Southern Regional is asking Clayton County to do the same, said Crissey.
“Southern Regional is no different from any other hospital with these challenges that we face today,” he said.
The hospital assistance will be described in the referendum as “acquisition of property to be used by the Clayton County Hospital Authority and Southern Regional Medical Center.” Hospital and county officials said the county will use SPLOST funds to buy the building which houses Southern Regional and lease it back to the hospital authority.
Riverdale and Lovejoy have agreed to give $2.9 million and $600,000, respectively, from their SPLOST allotments to help the hospital.
Check www.news-daily.com to see the 10-page proposed SPLOST project list for the county and its cities.