published Saturday, August 24th, 2013

Heiskell sheds light on Hutcheson’s breakup with Erlanger

Hutcheson Medical Center
Hutcheson Medical Center
Photo by Doug Strickland /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Erlanger Health System ran through $11 million of the $20 million line of credit provided when it took over management of Hutcheson Medical Center, and Erlanger didn’t supply the Fort Oglethorpe hospital with the number of doctors it promised.

Those are some reasons Hutcheson is ending the management agreement it entered with Erlanger in April 2011, Walker County Sole Commissioner Bebe Heiskell said in an interview Wednesday on UCTV-3, a Fort Oglethorpe cable TV station carried on Comcast and Charter Communications.

“[Erlanger] put that line of credit for $20 million out there, and then they walked in with their own person that they had put in the place,” Heiskell said via telephone to “Morning Show” hosts Judy O’Neal and Mike O’Neal. “And they … just went through $11 million of that $20 million in one year without making any changes.”

Heiskell said, “They were going to come in and manage it, and they didn’t do anything.”

Hutcheson now owes Erlanger $21.55 million on the $20 million line of credit, Heiskell said.

However, she praised the job done by Roger Forgey, Hutcheson’s most recent president and CEO, who was posted by Erlanger in January 2012 to take administrator Debbie Reeves’ place.

“He is outstanding,” Heiskell said. “He is the one that brought in all those high-end doctors at Erlanger that are in the university system, and they’re super doctors.”

Heiskell added, “But the one thing they promised us was 15 doctors from Erlanger, and we never got ’em.”

Erlanger President and CEO Kevin Spiegel, who was hired in February, said the issues Heiskell raised predate him.

He defended the job Erlanger has done at Hutcheson.

“The financial position since Erlanger has been there has significantly improved, and that’s a fact,” Spiegel said.

Physician recruitment is difficult, he said, especially in smaller communities.

“There are national shortages of physicians,” Spiegel said. “It gets more difficult in communities that are smaller. I think it’s much easier when [a hospital] is affiliated with a major medical center, like Erlanger.”

Spiegel didn’t find fault with Hutcheson, which plans to issue a request for proposals to see if it can partner with another hospital.

“Hutcheson is doing a prudent, responsible thing by going out to the market to get the best possible price,” he said.

Spiegel also didn’t take umbrage at Heiskell’s comment.

“Bebe is a wonderful, wonderful individual, she really is. I think we connected the moment we met,” he said. “She’s a good person, and she’s a great advocate for her community.”

Hutcheson has labored to keep its negotiations with Erlanger out of the public eye. As a rule, board members, hospital officials and consultants won’t answer reporters’ questions and refer them to Waterhouse Public Relations, which has been hired by Hutcheson.

The decision to end the partnership was made Monday night at a closed-door, four-hour-long meeting of Hutcheson Medical Center Inc.’s executive committee. But the agenda didn’t state what the meeting was about. Board Chairman Corky Jewell that night quickly read aloud of the motion to modify Hutcheson’s relationship with Erlanger, but he wouldn’t release a printed copy.

“I don’t even know if I’m under a gag order here,” Heiskell told the cable TV show hosts. “A lot of this stuff has been behind closed doors and is privileged information.”

Contact Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6651.

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers Catoosa and Walker counties for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California. Stories he's covered include crime in blighted parts of metro Detroit and Reno, Nev.; environmental activists tree-sitting in California's Sierra Nevada foothills; attempts by the Michigan Militia to take over a township¹s government in northern Michigan. A native of Michigan, ...

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