Struggling rural hospital seeks partner

Print Friendly and PDF By: Dian Cai Published: Feb 20, 2012

Elbert Memorial Hospital, facing major financial challenges, is seeking a larger hospital as a partner.

“We keep losing patients, losing revenue and also doctors in the past several years,” said Jim Lloyd, chairman of the Elberton-Elbert County Hospital Authority. “We need someone with assets and capital to take us forward.”

Elbert Memorial Hospital, a 47-bed facility serving Elbert County since 1950, terminated its management contract with Quorum Health Resources last September. Quorum is a national company that manages 150 hospitals across the United States.

“We are not interested in any other management contracts at this point,” Lloyd said at the Hospital Foundation’s annual meeting of the Endowment Advisory Board in January.

Like other small hospitals, Elbert Memorial has been struggling financially for several years. Many of the hospital’s patients are uninsured or covered by Medicare or Medicaid, while an increasing number of better-insured and private-pay patients travel to Athens for their care.

Elbert County, in northeast Georgia on the South Carolina line, was important in the state’s early history but has remained mostly rural. The granite industry is one of its chief employers.

A wave of hospital consolidation and partnerships has swept across Georgia over the past year, as various medical centers look to cut costs and position themselves in a fast-changing health care marketplace.

Athens Regional Medical Center draws patients from 17 counties and is seeking more patients from Elbert County, according to Helene Schwartz, director of the Athens Regional Foundation.

“It seems that a lot of people come to Athens because they need to see specialists they may not have in their county,” said Schwartz. “When patients from Elberton and other outlying areas are hospitalized, their families often stay at [Athens Regional Medical Center’s] guest house.”

As a result of the dwindling number of privately insured patients, Elbert Memorial  is only reimbursed for about 30 percent of what it bills patients, said Daniel Graves, chairman of the Elbert Memorial Hospital Foundation.

“We have been unable to make up the difference with good-paying and insured patients at this time,” he said.

Graves admitted that hospital leaders may have made decisions along the way that motivated patients to go elsewhere for non-emergency care.

“Our facility is not as nice as Athens Regional or St. Mary’s,” he said. “Since we lose so much money serving the poor, we cannot invest in our facilities as much as we would like. Also, in the past when we had more revenue, we did not focus on updating our facility as much as we should have.”

The process of seeking a partnership with a larger, more affluent medical center has just begun. Eight or nine hospitals will be considered, Lloyd said. Elbert Memorial officials expect the whole transaction to be completed in six to nine months.

Lloyd hopes that affiliation with a larger institution will not only reverse the hospital financial predicament but also bring assets and doctors back to the area.

“I hope [an affiliation] will bring capital so we can increase the size of the hospital or even build a new state-of-the-art hospital,” said Lloyd. “We also expect the recruitment programs that would bring more doctors, or depending on how the affiliation works, we might share the doctors with our potential partner.”

In return, Graves said, such an alliance could give a larger hospital a firmer foothold in Elbert County and the opportunity to expand operations into a new market area. The result could be a boon to Elbert residents.

 

Dian Cai earned a bachelor’s degree in international journalism at United International College in China. She is now pursuing a master’s in Health & Medical Journalism at the University of Georgia while pursing a certificate in global public health.

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