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St. Bernard's keeps eye on Cherokee

Thursday, July 7, 2005

Opening a hospital in Cherokee Village is still the goal of a Jonesboro-based healthcare provider.

George Fray, vice president of new businesses for St. Bernard's Healthcare, said if an attempt by International Health System to open a hospital in Cherokee Village fails his company is ready to step in.

"There's a real interest on our part in opening a hospital in Sharp County," Fray said from his office June 30. "We hope it's a dream that can be realized."

An anonymous source close to the situation said International Health Systems, a St. Louis, Mo., based healthcare provider, has not been able to acquire enough financing to open a hospital.

James "Jim" Cheek, president of of International Health System, didn't return numerous phone calls by the Villager Journal.

In early June, Cheek said he was in Alabama searching for investors in the new hospital. He said he had talked with local financial institutions about financing the project but was unable to strike a deal. Cheek would not say which financial institutions he talked to.

Fray said he has talked with the Sharp County Healthcare Facilities Board within the last week. "We assured them (facilities board) that we are still interested in a hospital for Sharp County," Fray said.

He said St. Bernard's plans for a hospital remain unchanged from a presentation they gave the facilities board May 10.

According to St. Bernard's plan, Sharp County would buy the hospital and then turn control of it over to a board of governors. The board of governors would then select a healthcare provider such as St. Bernard's Healthcare to manage the hospital.

The Sharp County Healthcare Facilities Board was formed in April and is comprised of five members -- Bob Evins, Martin Carpenter, Bob Murphy, Marc Goings and Randy Ratliff.

The facilities board has the power to approve of any deal to open a hospital in Sharp County that involves county funds.

None of the board members were available for comment as of press time.

Fray said a sales tax increase is likely if Sharp County wants to buy the hospital. "This is the best model for owning and operating a small, rural hospital that we've seen." Fray said.

St. Bernard's Healthcare provides management services for hospitals in Wynn and Walnut Ridge and provides consultation services for a hospital in Piggott, Fray said.

He said he knows it would be difficult to pass a sales tax in Sharp County, but it could be essential to sustaining the economical vitality of the county.

"This area is growing economically and the population is growing," Fray said. "It's hard for a county to grow without a hospital."

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Sharp County's population has increased by 372 people or 2.2 percent since 2000.

Sharp County is one of the few counties in north central and northeast Arkansas that is growing at a steady rate, Fray said. He said it is rare for a hospital in a growing county to close.

Fray said he hasn't had any contact with Cheek or former Eastern Ozarks Regional Health System owner Robert Becht. He said small private healthcare providers like International Health Systems often have difficulty finding money for hospitals. "But sometimes they get lucky and find the money," said Fray.

Becht, who shut down the know defunct Cherokee Village hospital Dec. 1 because of health code violations and financial problems, has refused to comment to the media.

A group of Sharp County residents spearheaded by Marc Goings is aggressively seeking options to open a new hospital, Fray said.

Goings was out of town and unavailable for comment.

"You've got a solid, smart group of people working towards opening a hospital in Sharp County," Fray said. "The people over there need to be optimistic. One way or another there needs to be a hospital in Sharp County."



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