August 5, 2013 9:28:23 AM
Continued debate on the future of Oktibbeha County Hospital Regional Medical Center's future has re-energized hospital supporter and former Starkville Alderman Frank Davis, who is putting together another petition drive to ensure the medical facility remains under local control.
Oktibbeha County supervisors were scheduled to meet this morning to discuss a 50-year lease proposal for OCH previously offered by Franklin, Tenn.-based Capella Healthcare.
The Dispatch first reported Capella was exploring a long-term lease for the hospital in May. The company originally inquired about OCH's status in an April 23 letter to the county.
Board President Orlando Trainer concluded the last July county meeting by asking supervisors to use the two-week gap between gatherings to analyze Capella's offer so the board could then move forward with talks on the offer.
Capella Vice President for Acquisitions Doug Johnson confirmed his company's interest but did not disclose how much was offered for Oktibbeha County's hospital. Any finalized transaction would have to address OCH's debt. In 2008, voters approved an almost $28 million bond for physical expansions and renovations to the hospital.
No other formal offers are on the table, Trainer confirmed in July.
Hospital transaction rumors surfaced last year, and the county went through lengthy public discussions on the issue. The possibility of an OCH sale or lease motivated Davis to start a petition drive last year that compiled a list of county residents who wanted the health care entity to remain under county control. If supervisors find traction on the issue, a petition drive would force a future transaction to a county-wide referendum.
In all, Davis collected almost 2,000 signatures last year. The former alderman said he plans to visit Oktibbeha County Circuit Clerk Glenn Hamilton soon to see if the signatures are still valid and can be a legitimate challenge to any transaction.
"If not, we're planning a whole new campaign," Davis said. "We won't have trouble getting signatures again if we have to since people are tired of hearing about this issue come up over and over again."
County residents want to see OCH remain under local control, Davis said, and the proof is how quickly his petition drive amassed signatures last year. Davis said it took about a month to collect almost all the names needed to force the issue to the polls as needed.
"We could have easily gone over 2,000 had we not stopped," he said. "I think more people will sign this time. I think if it really came down to it, a vote by the citizens in the county would go our way. I think it's only fair to give the power to the voters and let us make that decision. It's our OCH, and I hate to think that five supervisors could make that decision for us.
"We have a good hospital. I just don't know why in the world anyone would want to jeopardize it," Davis added.
Last year, Trainer attempted to move forward with a state-required analysis of OCH's financials in lieu of a potential transaction, but the senior supervisor could not maintain board support on the issue. At the time, supervisors estimated the analysis would cost the county about $35,000.
Supervisors John Montgomery and Joe Williams joined Trainer in approving requests for proposals for such a study, but Montgomery later declared he would not support a deal after he independently met with OCH administration and reviewed the hospital's financial records.
Montgomery reiterated his support for OCH in July and said he would not support a transaction at this time.
"It would be incumbent on the board to acknowledge the offer, look at it and see whether it would be of interest," Trainer said in July. "We would not necessarily have to move forward on it, but it brings us back to the same crossroads with analysis. We can't move forward without one."
Capella Healthcare was founded eight years ago and now operates 14 hospitals in six states. In June, the company rescinded a bid to purchase a second hospital in Hot Springs, Ark., after the deal drew questions from the Federal Trade Commission.
Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch
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