published Friday, June 21st, 2013

$3.5 million line of credit buys time for Hutcheson

Hutcheson Medical Center on Gross Crescent Circle in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga.
Hutcheson Medical Center on Gross Crescent Circle in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga.

LAFAYETTE, Ga. — Walker County Sole Commissioner Bebe Heiskell voted to buy $3.5 million worth of time Thursday to negotiate the fate of Erlanger at Hutcheson hospital.

In a last-minute addition to the agenda of her afternoon meeting, Heiskell opted to back a $3.5 million line of credit from Regions Bank to help finance day-to-day operations at the Fort Oglethorpe hospital, which is owned by Walker, Dade and Catoosa counties.

"I think it shows the county's commitment to see this thing through," County Attorney Don Oliver said.

Oliver was referring to the ongoing closed-door negotiations between top officials from Chattanooga-based Erlanger Health System and county-appointed Hutcheson board members.

"We think we're getting very close," Oliver said Thursday.

Erlanger at Hutcheson's management team said they've turned around the hospital's finances, but they need the counties to refinance more than $60 million in debt with low-interest, long-term bonds.

County officials have expressed willingness to issue bonds -- provided Erlanger secures the debt, or promises to cover the bond payments. That way, they say, taxpayers won't be on the hook if the hospital fails.

Catoosa County Chairman Keith Greene expects Catoosa commissioners will back the $3.5 million line of credit, too, at an upcoming meeting.

"I'm sure we'll be on board with that," Greene said Thursday.

Previous $2.5 million

Walker and Catoosa counties previously approved a $2.5 million line of credit through Regions Bank for the hospital.

That went through on May 15, the day before payday. A sign near hospital time clocks then said employees would be getting paper checks on May 16, rather than direct deposits, leading to speculation that Hutcheson needed the line of credit to make payroll.

The $3.5 million line of credit will keep the hospital going for a while, according to Oliver.

"We don't want any more last-minute emergencies," he said.

Erlanger Health System's new president and chief executive officer, Kevin Spiegel, has been meeting with Corky Jewell and Bill Cohen, the chairman and vice chairman of the Hutcheson Hospital Authority Board, Greene said.

Attorneys for the counties, Hutcheson and Erlanger have taken part, too, Oliver said.

Heiskell, Greene and a Dade County representative -- likely Commission Chairman Ted Rumley -- plan to have a closed-door meeting next week with Spiegel, Greene said.

If long-term bonds are issued, the $3.5 million line of credit will be rolled into it along with other Hutcheson debts, including a $35 million Regions Bank bond issue and $20 million loaned by Erlanger.

Contact staff writer 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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