When doctors need something immediately, they'll say they need it "stat."
Hutcheson Medical Center needs refinancing -- stat -- from the three counties that own it, a group of physicians there said.
Walker, Dade and Catoosa counties should immediately sell bonds to cover the roughly $60 million in debt that's been dogging the Fort Oglethorpe hospital. County officials should not wait to find a partner to lease Hutcheson before refinancing the debt through low-interest bonds, the doctors say.
"Hutcheson simply can't wait that long," according to a letter written by Hutcheson Chief of Staff John F. Nelson and signed by 13 other doctors. "The hospital needs to discharge its debt service now in order for physicians, hospital staff and administration to press forward with its aggressive recovery."
The hospital's finances are positive for the first time in more than seven years and $10 million improved compared to last year, the letter states. The improvements come under the leadership of President and CEO Roger Forgey, an Erlanger Health System employee who has managed Hutcheson under a lease agreement that is coming to an end.
Improvements under Forgey include the re-establishment of core medical services such as general surgery and cardiology, an improved emergency department and the expansion of Hutcheson's outpatient clinic system, the letter states.
"However, these accomplishments have been overshadowed by Hutcheson's debt issues and the recent uncertainty with the Erlanger partnership," Nelson wrote. "Despite Hutcheson's operational progress, our community cannot gain confidence in the quality, compassion and dedication of care provided daily at Hutcheson when all they hear is the chaos surrounding the uncertainty of the hospital's future."
Dade County Commission Chairman Ted Rumley said Thursday that Nelson raises good points in his letter -- but Dade can't take part in refinancing Hutcheson's debt without a partner in place to cover the sum.
"We can't do that," Rumley said. "Dade County can't. Maybe Walker and Catoosa can. You've got to have a guarantee."
Catoosa County Commission Chairman Keith Greene couldn't immediately comment Thursday. Walker County Sole Commissioner Bebe Heiskell said she hadn't had a chance to read Nelson's letter or talk to her county's representatives on Hutcheson's various boards.
"I may have an opinion later on," Heiskell said. "But right now, I don't."
Bonding the debt now would put Hutcheson in a better negotiating position to lease the hospital, Nelson wrote.
In an interview Thursday, he made some back-of-the-envelope calculations and said the three counties' 150,000 residents might each have to pay $15 to $20 annually to make up the difference between bond payments and the hospital's profit.
The hospital employs about 500 people full time and 300 to 400 people part time, he said.
"This really is a community hospital ... staffed primarily by people who live in the community," Nelson said.
Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at email@example.com or 423-757-6651.
Tim Omarzu covers education 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.