January 24, 2018 10:34:50 AM
Three hospital systems have expressed interest in affiliating with OCH Regional Medical Center, the Starkville hospital's CEO, Richard Hilton, announced at a trustees meeting Tuesday evening.
North Mississippi Health Services of Tupelo and Jackson-based University of Mississippi Medical Center have already pitched affiliation proposals to trustees in previous executive sessions, Hilton said, while Baptist Memorial Health Services of Memphis, Tennessee is expected to present in the near future.
"This is not a bid process," Hilton told The Dispatch after Tuesday's meeting. "These systems are talking about things they think they can offer small community hospitals. ... Once a decision is made (by the trustees on whether to affiliate), there will be a public announcement and more elaboration on what kinds of things we're looking at."
OCH, an Oktibbeha County owned system, began looking at affiliation amid a hard-fought campaign in 2017 county supervisors set in motion to try to sell the hospital and its clinics. Voters in November, however, opted to keep OCH publicly owned.
An affiliation would create a partnership of shared resources between OCH and a larger system without giving that system ownership rights.
Hilton said the process toward affiliation is moving along, but neither he nor the board of trustees is in any hurry.
"It's new ground for us. We're just feeling our way," Hilton said. "We would rather take our time to really look at this smart and pick a system we think will be best for the community, our doctors and this hospital. ... It's too early to say where this is going."
Benefits of affiliation
Hilton said affiliation would not serve as a "cure all" for improving OCH's financial stability -- something both supervisors and a consultant report called into question during last year's election campaign. Coupled with internal cost-control measures OCH is implementing, he said, it would considerably help sustainability.
One key way affiliation could help quickly is through providing patients local access to a larger system's specialists through consultation, telemedicine (by phone) or actually having the doctors rotate through OCH in-person. That would allow patients to stay longer at OCH, if needed, rather than be transferred so quickly to a larger facility.
"Right now we're known as a 'drip and ship' hospital," Hilton said. "With our patients having access here to higher-level specialists, it could help (alleviate) that."
OCH also could combine with the larger affiliated system's purchasing volume for medical services and equipment, which would likely drive costs down compared to OCH trying to purchase them on its own, Hilton said.
In return, physicians with the affiliated system has the potential for more patients, as well as access to OCH's doctors and services.
However, affiliation would not take OCH physicians' freedom to refer patients to whatever hospital they see fit, Hilton stressed.
"No doctor wants to be told where to refer patients," he said. "I imagine the (affiliated system) would want to show us why we would want to refer to them. But it won't be a 'have to' type of thing."
If it doesn't work, Hilton said, the "divorce" from an affiliation would be much smoother than from a purchase or lease. Plus, if terms need to be adjusted based on either system's changing needs, affiliation allows that flexibility.
Baptist 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, which are not-for-profit groups, also submitted county supervisors proposals to purchase OCH before last year's election.
UMMC, a state-owned system with a main facility and Blair Batson Children's Hospital located in Jackson, boasts 38 hospitals or clinics throughout Mississippi.
OCH trustee board chair Linda Breazeale called the systems "very good options" and "healthy hospitals in every sense of the word."
She added she is keeping an open mind throughout the process but admitted she feels affiliation could strengthen OCH.
"It's interesting to hear how other hospitals provide for their community and the visions they have for a partnership," Breazeale said. "It's also interesting to hear what they think of OCH. They obviously think we are worth their effort."
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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