Evelyn Willett said she watched the birth of Fulton County Hospital and now she's hoping she avoids watching its death. "If our hospital closes it would just be a disaster," said Willet.
On April 13 Fulton County voters will go to the polls and either approve or reject a half-cent sales tax to benefit Fulton County Hospital.
Willet, a dietician who's worked at the hospital since it opened in 1963, said residents need to understand how important it is to have a hospital in Fulton County. She said the hospital provides many services, and if it weren't here, people would have to drive a long way to get the same services.
She said over the years she's watched hundreds, maybe thousands of patients come to the hospital who were in severe distress and needed immediate medical attention. "If the hospital hadn't been here, many of those people would have been hurt worse or even died," she said.
Fulton County Hospital Administrator Frank Wise said if the tax is not approved the hospital will close. He said the hospital is in need of renovations and equipment to bring it into compliance with federal hospital codes.
The hospital's reserve fund has been losing money since 1998, the same year new federal regulations dealing with the home health system went into effect. The hospital has been losing $100,000 a year since, Wise said.
He said while the hospital was losing money, its expenses continued to grow. In 2003 the hospital lost $162,000 on its ambulance service. In the last five years, the hospital has had to replace a leaky roof, buy new ambulances and an X-ray machine, and absorb all of the financial loses in the emergency room."After all of these expenditures, the reserve fund is virtually gone," Wise said.
Dr. Griffin Arnold gave a presentation to the Salem City Council Feb. 26 on why Fulton County residents need to pass the half-cent sales tax. He said the hospital board commissioned a study to examine what kind of economic impact Fulton County Hospital has on the county.
Arnold said the study, conducted by the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, showed the hospital is directly or indirectly responsible for providing 529 jobs.
He said the study showed the hospital brought in $4.3 million in federal revenue that would not otherwise come into the county, and the hospital was responsible for adding a total of $15 million in economic activity to the local economy.
Local doctors, pharmacies, nursing homes and other medical facilities would lose a majority of their clients or go out of business if the hospital closed, he said.
Bubba Shaw, a local paramedic, said he sees an irony in the whole issue of whether residents should pass the hospital tax.
Shaw said Fulton County Hospital currently runs the county's ambulance service. The county is required by law to have an ambulance service, and if the hospital closes the voters would be forced to pay a similar tax to cover the expense of an ambulance service.
He said the tax would be anywhere from $15 to $50 annually per resident. He said if the half-cent sales tax passes, a person would have to spend $10,000 on taxable items in the county to pay $50 in sales tax. He said most residents won't spend that much money in the county and they may as well keep their hospital if they're going to pay taxes anyway.
Shaw said a new ambulance service without a hospital is a bad idea.
"The ambulance service provided to the county, if the hospital is closed, would be very antiquated," Shaw said.
Shaw said ambulances run from emergency calls to Fulton County Hospital, a short distance. Trips would be longer if they had to go to Mountain Home, West Plains or Batesville. He said while the ambulances are on these longer trips, people would be temporarily without an ambulance.
"People don't realize how important it is to have an ambulance close until they need one," he said.
Willet said in the 41 years she's worked at the hospital, this is the closest she's seen it to closing. "I remember when we first opened and we were the only hospital in the state of Arkansas that was all electrical. Doctors from Little Rock and all over would come up to marvel at our hospital; it was a state of the art operation" she said."I hope the people will see what they're losing if the tax isn't passed," she said.