October 5, 2017 4:44:59 PM
Baptist Memorial Health Care Corporation and North Mississippi Health Services are the two groups vying to purchase OCH Regional Medical Center in Starkville.
Oktibbeha County supervisors contacted The Dispatch with that information Thursday afternoon, after those organizations consented to their identities being made public.
Baptist, based in Memphis, Tennessee, has 21 hospitals in Mississippi, Tennessee and Arkansas - including a Golden Triangle facility located in Columbus - along with several smaller clinic operations.
North Mississippi Health Services, with its flagship facility in Tupelo, owns six hospitals in north Mississippi - including one in West Point - as well as more than 50 clinics in Mississippi and northwest Alabama.
Both are not-for-profit groups. According to a press release supervisors issued Thursday evening, those groups are interested in buying OCH outright, instead of leasing with the option to purchase later.
Voters will decide on Nov. 7 whether to authorize the board of supervisors to sell the county-owned hospital. Supervisors reviewed the two proposals on Sept. 26 in executive session, but all have since said confidentiality agreements prevented them from releasing any specifics about the bids until after the election.
However, supervisors say they pressed the two organizations to waive those agreements to the extent they could make the names public. Those waivers came through Thursday.
"I think this will alleviate a lot of the public's fears," said District 4 Supervisor Bricklee Miller. "These two respondents are so well recognized. ... I'm so grateful they agreed to (the waivers)."
The information release also comes a day after The Dispatch filed a public records complaint against the supervisors with the Mississippi Ethics Commission for previously declining to identify the bidders.
Supervisors began pursuing a hospital sale or lease in 2016, ordering an analysis of OCH and hiring a consultant to shepherd them through the process. They issued a request for proposals this spring and the submission deadline was Sept. 15.
Throughout the process, Miller, Orlando Trainer of District 2 and Joe Williams of District 5 consistently voted to move forward toward a sale or lease. John Montgomery and Marvell Howard, of districts 1 and 3, respectively, have consistently opposed a hospital transaction, as has the OCH board of trustees and medical staff.
A group of citizens gathered the required signatures earlier this year to force the issue to a referendum.
"I think by releasing these names (of the bidders), it will give voters a clearer picture of what they should do when they get in that voting booth," Howard said. "They will be able to research these (systems) on their own, and speak to people who live in communities where these hospitals are located to get a feel for their experiences. This was the right thing to do."
Howard said he was "a little surprised" there were only two respondents to the county's request for proposals.
"I think that shows that people (who might have otherwise bid) saw they couldn't come in and do a better job than OCH is doing," he said.
Now that the bidders' names are public, Montgomery is urging Baptist and NMMC to release "as much information as possible" before the election to educate voters.
"The sooner, the better," Montgomery said. "I'm glad some information is beginning to come out. But I can't say I'm satisfied with it."
In a statement OCH CEO Richard Hilton released to media Thursday, he said it is "no surprise" Baptist and North Mississippi both submitted proposals.
"These two health systems are major competitors with each other and would have a definite interest in protecting their market share by purchasing OCH," he said. "We have a longstanding relationshio and referral pattern with both of these systems. So as it stands, our patients have access to whichever facility our physicians feel best serves the patients' needs. ... Therefore it stands to reason that neither system wants the other to own OCH.
"It's evident that OCH remaining county-owned and operated provides the best possible care for this community," he added.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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