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By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter

 

Dade County Commission Executive Chairman Ted Rumley says that the commission has not held a special meeting to discuss financial backing for Hutcheson Medical Center, but that he expects the matter will come up at the body’s regular December meeting this Thursday. 

“We’ve discussed it before,” he said. 

According to a Hutcheson press release, Walker County passed a resolution to back a $2 million interim line of credit for the hospital, but Walker’s sole commissioner, Bebe Heiskell, has made the offer contingent on whether at least one of the other two counties that depend on Hutcheson as their official public hospital – that is, responsible for providing indigent care – would join Walker in the guarantee.  Those counties are Dade and Catoosa.   

Rumley said Dade would join Walker County in the line-of-credit offer only “if we could guarantee Dade taxpayers would not be at any risk.”

Dade has taken a similar stand on matters financial for the past few years as Hutcheson, struggling under a reported $60 million in debt, has sought to set itself a course for fiscal healing, first via a partnership with Chattanooga’s Erlanger Medical Center and latterly with a request-for-proposals (RFP) process aimed at leasing itself to some other medical institution.

Earlier this year, Dade rejected as too risky the notion of backing a bond issue to refinance Hutcheson’s debt, then this summer agreed to support such an issuance only on the condition of what seemed a sure bet this summer – a new lease agreement with Erlanger.

But negotiations between the two hospitals broke down before the Aug. 9 deadline, and Hutcheson and Erlanger agreed to dissolve the management arrangement that had bound them since 2011. 

When Hutcheson issued its subsequent RFP for a broader range of suitors, Erlanger was among the institutions that stepped up to respond; but the aforementioned press release, which was issued on Nov. 25, reported: “Hutcheson board members and representatives from the counties served by the hospital worked diligently to negotiate mutually agreeable lease terms with Erlanger, but were unsuccessful in reaching an agreement.”

Only one health care institution besides Erlanger responded to the RFP, the release revealed, going on to announce that Hutcheson was now “exploring financial solutions with a major lender in efforts to remain independent.”

Dade owns a percentage of Hutcheson, having paid, with the other two counties, for its construction in the 1940s. 

But since those days, Interstate 59 has made Chattanooga hospitals more accessible to Dade than is Hutcheson, which requires an-up-and-down circuit of Lookout Mountain from Trenton. In earlier hospital-related discussions, Dade commissioners have even brought up the possibility of asking the other counties to buy out Dade’s share.

But the commissioners have also discussed the unknowns of how the Affordable Care Act, off to a jerky start but due for implementation next year, will affect indigent care in a border-town situation like Dade’s, and so far the commissioners have stopped short of any drastic steps.

“Hutcheson plays a vital role in the healthcare of citizens in Walker, Dade and Catoosa counties, and we are pleased that a major lender is working with Hutcheson to identify the best long-term solution for keeping Hutcheson an independent entity,” Corky Jewell, chairman of the three-county hospital board of directors, is quoted in the press release. “We are strengthened by the support and encouraged about our future.”

The Dade County Commission meets at 6 p.m. on Thursday at the county Administrative Building.

 


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