published Friday, September 23rd, 2011

Erlanger moves cautiously toward new Southside clinic in Chattanooga

by Chris Carroll
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  • photo
    Kimberly R. Evans walks through the main hallway at the Southside Community Health Center in the former Franklin Middle School.
    Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

It took 57 seconds for Erlanger Health System's trustees to move toward a modern primary care facility for Chattanooga's uninsured Thursday.

But they'll be watching the checkbook.

Earlier this week, the board's financial advisory panel passed a management-backed resolution "authorizing the replacement and relocation" of the Southside Community Health Center. On Thursday, the full board -- whose vote is binding -- unanimously acknowledged "the need for quantifying the cost" of the project.

In other words, a new facility isn't guaranteed.

Since 1968, Southside has operated inside the former Franklin Middle School, a decaying building where more than 30,000 uninsured residents get clinical and dental care every year.

Erlanger wants something more accessible and patient-friendly, but it must move quickly -- a $1 per year rental agreement with the current building's owner expires in May 2012, potentially exposing the public hospital to costlier lease payments and major structural renovations.

The board drafted the more restrained resolution after two trustees, Dan Quarles and Richard Casavant, raised questions Monday about management's plans.

The earlier resolution would have given management authority "to negotiate, enter into and execute" relevant contracts. It would have allowed executives to find a outside developer to finance and build a new health center for an estimated cost of $850,000 to $900,000, surmising 15 annual lease payments of $137,020 before Erlanger would take ownership of the building.

None of that appears within the binding resolution, which merely authorizes hospital management to issue a request for proposals "to determine the availability and terms of third party construction and financing."

Bill Hicks, executive director of the Southside and Dodson Avenue Community Health Centers, said he wasn't upset with the board's decision.

"It's the next step in the process," he said. "I'm in agreement with them."

Casavant, a former dean of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga College of Business, said he recognized the need for a new facility, but a shaky economy warrants caution before commitment.

"Let's see how much it costs," Casavant said.

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