published Thursday, February 28th, 2013

Bill adds Catoosa seat on Erlanger at Hutcheson hospital board

Catoosa County, Ga., would get an extra seat on the board that oversees Erlanger at Hutcheson hospital and Dade County would give up a seat under legislation to be introduced in Atlanta.

The restructuring reflects the $20 million in financial support that Catoosa and Walker counties have jointly pledged to the Fort Oglethorpe hospital. The Dade County Commission declined to offer financial backing.

Catoosa and Walker counties will sell bonds to let the hospital refinance $11 million in Medicare debt on which it now pays 11 percent interest. Thanks to the counties' support, the hospital's interest rate will drop to 1 percent.

In exchange, Catoosa County officials sought to have four seats on the board of what's officially known as the Hospital Authority of Walker, Dade and Catoosa Counties.

Walker County would keep its four seats, and Dade County would see its board members decrease from two to one.

"Since we're pledging county money, we want equal representation [to Walker County]," Catoosa County Commissioner Jim Cutler said.

Another reason, Cutler said, is that Catoosa County's population has grown to roughly equal Walker County's. The U.S. Census Bureau's most current information shows Catoosa had an estimated 64,530 residents in 2011, compared to Walker's 68,848 residents.

Another change that the Catoosa County Commission sought was to have complete authority in appointing members to the hospital board. In the past, the hospital board has been able to reject commissioners' suggestions, Cutler said.

One reason Dade County officials cited for not backing hospital bonds is that Dade residents now mainly seek hospital care in Chattanooga, thanks to freeways built since the tri-county hospital was founded in the 1950s.

Georgia District 1 Rep. John Deffenbaugh, R-Lookout Mountain, said Wednesday that he hadn't yet seen legislation introduced to restructure the hospital board. He expected it would be soon, since a deadline is approaching to post new bills.

Deffenbaugh, who represents Dade and Walker counties, wasn't sure how he'd vote on taking a seat away from Dade.

"I have not made up my mind at this point," he said.

He thinks Dade County's reluctance to back hospital bonds is a separate issue from its board representation.

"Everybody seems to be linking them. I'm not convinced that should be the case," Deffenbaugh said.

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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