On April 13 Fulton County residents will be asked to go to the polls and approve a 1/2-cent sales tax increase to benefit Fulton County Hospital. Hospital Administrator Frank Wise said without the tax money the hospital will be lost. "If the sales tax isn't passed, the hospital will fade away, I guarantee it."
Wise, who has been administrator at the hospital since 1993, said the hospital cannot remain in operation under its current budget constraints. He said the hospital is in need of renovations and new equipment to comply with federal hospital codes.
Wise said in the last five years the hospital's reserve fund has been dwindling away. Since 1998 the hospital has been losing money, he said.
Wise cited several reasons for this. In 1998 new federal regulations dealing with the home health system went into effect. Wise said these changes cut about $100,000 in federal revenue from the hospital budget.
While they were receiving less money, expenses continued to grow. Wise said the hospital is responsible for maintaining the county ambulance service and they absorb all financial losses from the emergency room. Wise said the hospital lost $162,000 in 2003 on the ambulance service alone. Over the last five years the hospital replaced a leaky roof, bought a new X-ray machine and bought new ambulances. Wise said all of these expenditures came out of the reserve fund and now it's almost gone.
Wise said the hospital receives no tax revenue from the county. In 1989 a 1-cent sales tax was passed in Fulton County under the provision that the hospital would receive some of those funds. The hospital received those funds until 1995 when 100 percent of the tax went directly to the county. Wise said Fulton County Hospital is the only county hospital in the state that doesn't receive any tax money.
Hospital board member Barry Aldridge said the consequences to the community would be dire if the hospital closes. He said the hospital is the largest employer in the county.
The hospital board commissioned a study to examine the economic impact the hospital has on the local community. The study, conducted by the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, stated the hospital is an integral part of the local economy. The study said the hospital is directly and indirectly responsible for generating 172 jobs and bringing in over $3.5 million to the local economy. Its also responsible for bringing in millions of dollars in federal money that would otherwise not come into the county. The study goes on to say that if the hospital is lost, many of the health care related industries (pharmacies, home health, local doctors) would suffer great losses as well. The health care industry employs 529 people and generates $15 million for the local economy. Wise said all of this could be lost if the hospital closes.
Dr. Griffin Arnold and Fulton County Hospital Board member Vicki Fowlkes told the Salem City Council the benefits of passing the tax would be immense. They said the tax would provide enough funds to build onto the hospital, buy new equipment and replenish emergency funds. Arnold said this is crucial if the area wants to attract new doctors when the older doctors retire.
Arnold and Fowlkes also said the hospital is applying for critical access status. Critical access is a program through the federal government that helps small rural hospitals meet their financial needs. In order to qualify for this program, the hospital would have to undergo some changes. The program requires the hospital to have a 25-bed limit and have a yearly patient stay average of four days. The hospital must also be affiliated with a larger hospital. Arnold and Fowlkes said this is an achievable goal for the hospital.