The county’s decision on whether to come to the aid of Oconee Regional Medical Center by providing collateral on the hospital’s debt is still to be determined.
Following a second meeting of the county commissioners last week, more information was given on the hospital’s request that the county provide a 2-mil yearly tax increase to reduce the interest payments on the hospital’s bond debt. Our commissioners noted the value of the hospital to the community, and they expressed concern about the potentially detrimental impact of losing one of the county’s largest employers. However, no decision has been reached on whether the county will step in to help the hospital. This indecision may impact the entire community, not just the hospital and the county commission.
Access to a system of quality health care is one of the issues prospective businesses and industries look to as a selling point for launching new development in a community. It is also a factor many potential new residents will consider before relocating to a new community.
An economic impact study indicated the ORMC contributed $168 million into the local economy last year. Beyond the measure of dollars and cents, there is also a human factor — having a regional hospital in this community is a quality of life issue for everyone, not just in Baldwin County but in the surrounding counties as well.
The hospital currently has a $24.7 million bond debt. This debt has occurred, according to hospital CEO Jean Aycock, because of a 108 percent rise in uncompensated care. The rising costs of indigent care, coupled with the severe blows of the economic crisis, landed the hospital with operational losses of nearly $6 million last year. The hospital has made reductions through staffing cuts and new pay policies of nearly $2.5 million, and it has saved almost $900,000 in contract re-negotiations and service charges. In addition, another $170,000 in general cuts and $1.9 million in care coordination changes will be realized in the next full fiscal year, according to hospital officials. While this year has seen loss projections cut in half to around $3 million, the debt strain may soon become more evident in the level of care the hospital can provide — unless, that is, a debt resolution is met.
As the hospital officials provide county officials with complete plans to assure that the hospital can make payments on its debt, we must remember that this request by the hospital for the county to step in and help is not a new concept — it is merely new to our community. In the wake of the recent economic challenges, many hospitals have made similar requests to their counties, and plans have been enacted in other communities to support their hospitals. These plans have been effective and have been a saving grace to other hospitals. It can work in Baldwin County as well, but the county must be willing to help.