published Saturday, August 31st, 2013

Walker County Commissioner Heiskell balks at Hutcheson bailout, proposes $3.4 million line of credit

Hutcheson Medical Center
Hutcheson Medical Center
Photo by Doug Strickland /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
  • photo
    Bebe Heiskell, sole commissioner of Walker County, attends a news conference at the Walker County Courthouse Annex on Friday in LaFyette, Ga. Heiskell announced her proposal to extend the line of credit for Hutcheson Medical Center to $3.4 million to cover operating costs prior to the Oct. 25 deadline for the request for proposals.
    Photo by Maura Friedman.
    enlarge photo

LaFAYETTE, Ga. — The big bailout of Hutcheson Medical Center may have to wait — or maybe not.

Officials in Walker and Catoosa counties, which recently have been keeping the Fort Oglethorpe hospital afloat through lines of credit, have divergent views.

Walker County Sole Commissioner Bebe Heiskell wants to wait. But Catoosa County Commission Chairman Keith Greene is ready to put the debt to rest.

Instead of immediately refinancing Hutcheson's roughly $60 million in debt by selling bonds, Heiskell would like to extend a temporary lifeline of $3.4 million in credit through Regions Bank to keep the hospital operating until Oct. 25, when bids are due for a new partner to take over. Hutcheson is ending the agreement under which it was managed by Erlanger Health System of Chattanooga and is putting out requests for proposals for a new partner.

"Right now, I don't think we should make a large, long-range commitment until we find out who is going to back this," Heiskell said at a Friday afternoon news conference in her board room in LaFayette, Ga. "We want to know before we make a commitment what kind of commitment we're making, and who's going to pay the bill."

Heiskell's announcement was in response to a request Wednesday by a group of Hutcheson physicians -- which was endorsed unanimously by hospital board members -- for Walker, Dade and Catoosa counties immediately to issue about $60 million in a bond anticipation note to refinance the hospital's debt at a lower, more manageable interest rate.

"I believe the hospital can make it if we get the debt we have under control," Greene said Friday evening.

He favors selling a bond anticipation note to settle the hospital's debt, which Greene thinks is better than "nickel-and-diming" the hospital by adding to its line of credit.

"I think we have a different plan, and we'll see how that goes," he said.

Greene said Catoosa County's five-member commission will discuss the matter in a closed-door executive session Tuesday and then come out and vote.

Like Heiskell, Dade County Commission Chairman Ted Rumley also was against refinancing all of Hutcheson's debt without a new partner in place.

But Greene said the counties will be able to work out their differences.

Walker and Catoosa counties previously issued a line of credit totalling $6 million through Regions Bank as a lifeline for Hutcheson. That would reach $9.4 million, if the proposed $3.4 million credit line is added to it.

The lines of credit and Hutcheson's other debts, including $21.5 million it owes Erlanger Health System, would be "rolled into" the roughly $60 million in low-interest bonds.

The counties can get a much lower interest rate than the hospital could on its own.

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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