The Sharp County Quorum Court held a special meeting March 7 to authorize Sharp County Judge Harold Crawford to appoint a public facilities board to explore options for opening the hospital in Cherokee Village. Justice of the Peace Greg Prenger of Cherokee Village said, "This is just getting the vehicle in place." "We want all proposals for buying the hospital on the table so we can move ahead with less confusion."
Crawford will appoint the five-member board after he returns to work, Prenger said.
Crawford, who had a heart transplant in 2003, suffered a collapsed lung Feb. 21. He is in stable condition at Baptist Hospital in Little Rock and is expected to be released this week.
Any proposals to buy and operate the hospital will have to comply with state law, Prenger said. A proposal to buy the hospital by Sharp Medical Foundation and White River Health Systems may not meet that test, he said.
Sharp Medical Chairman Jay Torbit said the foundation will ask the Sharp County Quorum Court for a countywide sales tax to supplement their bid to buy the hospital from Eastern Ozarks owner Robert Becht.
But according to Arkansas statutes a county cannot partially own a hospital.
"The county has to own the hospital," Prenger said. "It cannot enter into an owner partnership with someone else."
Under Sharp Medical Foundation's proposal, Sharp County would buy Eastern Ozarks with money raised from a countywide sales tax, said Torbit.
After the purchase, the county would lease the hospital to Sharp Medical Center, a not-for-profit private corporation jointly owned by Sharp Medical Foundation and White River Health Systems, he said.
White River would then invest up to $4 million to buy equipment and make improvements to bring Eastern Ozarks into compliance with state health codes, Torbit said.
Torbit said in return for its investment White River would have administrative control over the hospital.
"Our plan would save Sharp County residents money in the long run," Torbit said. "White River has made a commitment to our area and we need them."
The estimated cost of buying and reopening Eastern Ozarks is $10 million, Torbit said.
"Buying and reopening the hospital will cost $8 million," Torbit said. "And it will take a cash reserve of approximately $2 million to operate the hospital until Medicare and insurance reimbursements are able to kick in after it reopens."
He said the foundation is actively searching for grants and accepting donations to offset costs.
White River is conducting mechanical surveys and other inspections of the hospital to determine the exact costs of reopening it, according to White River CEO Gary Bebow.
Torbit said the results of those surveys and research conducted by Dr. John Baker, head of the Health Services Administration Department at UALR, will be presented to the White River Board of Directors this week.
George Fray, vice president for new business at St. Bernard's Medical Center in Jonesboro, said his hospital is also equally interested in managing the hospital.
Fray said his hospital supports a plan in which the county would buy the hospital through a countywide sales tax.
The facilities board would then lease administrative control of the hospital, at which point St. Bernard's would like to step in, he said.