"We want to do the right thing and we want the community to know that," Barry Aldridge chairman of the Fulton County Hospital Board of Directors said at the Nov. 7 special meeting, called to discuss questions and issues that have surfaced since the board signed a Letter of Intent with Baxter Regional Hospital Oct. 25.
"There's been a lot of talk going around town and there's been some things come out in some of the media sources that might not be 100 percent correct," Aldridge said. "There's been some headlines from one radio station that made it seem like this is a deal that's already been done. That's the furthest thing from the truth."
Aldridge said that the purpose of the Letter of Intent was to research the possibility of a lease agreement with BRMC. He said nothing is binding and there were no terms attached to the letter.
"I feel this was something that all the people of the county deserve the right to have us take a look at; something that might better our hospital," Aldridge said. "We don't know if it will until we get the proposal back. This is a way for BRMC to come up with the information they need to give us a true proposal. We don't know what that will be, so there's no way a decision can be made at this point and time. The hospital employees and all the people of the county need to know that a decision has not been made."
Aldridge said that a decision to enter into a lease with BRMC is something that would affect the entire area. "Could it get better with BRMC running this hospital? Possibly," Aldridge said. "Could it not? Possibly. We don't know what their full intentions are, as of yet. This letter basically says that we are not going to search out other hospitals and other avenues, for a lease or a buy-out or any other thing, from a corporation or hospital, until their (BRMC) due diligence is done and we see their proposal. They are going to get the first shot."
Once the proposal is received from BRMC the hospital board, with an attorney's help, will go over the proposal to see if it's something that will be good for the hospital and the area. "From that point, whether it be agreed upon or not, we have checks and balances in this county," Aldridge said. "It is my understanding that it will leave us and go before the quorum court for them to also approve or disapprove. As a board, the number one thing we need to do is to take in consideration all aspects and look at it thoroughly before making any kind of decision."
"Each and every member of this board needs to state their case -- what your thoughts and concerns are about this," Aldridge said. "I want each and everyone of you heard. There are seven of us on this board and we're going to have to make a decision. From us it will go to the quorum court, but it will have to go through us first. This is a bigger decision than I was really wanting to have to make, and I'm sure some of you feel the same way, however, I want to do everything I can to help my community and I know you do too." The seven members of the Fulton County Hospital Board are Barry Aldridge, Danny Perryman, Al Roork, Vicky Fowlkes, Sue Hertzog, Griffin Arnold and Jerry Blevins.
Salem doctors Griffin Arnold and Jim Bozeman addressed the board about concerns they had regarding the hospital and its future.
"I think the last time we were here, I was led by the emotional aspects of the evening," Arnold said. "I thought, 'oh my gosh, the hospital might close,' and I don't want that to happen. I think I reacted pretty much on that. I don't want the hospital to die." Arnold said that since then he has talked with more people and has had time to think about the possibility of a BRMC lease agreement. "I think we moved a little bit too fast. I think we need to extinguish a lot of avenues before we sit down and start making decisions. I think it is wise for us to listen to proposals from other people and other places. I personally don't think we're at the end of the road for this hospital."
Arnold said that major changes have occurred at the hospital including a change in management with the firing of the hospital administrator and he would like to see the impact the changes have made to the hospital's bottom line.
Arnold pointed out that two hospitals, one in Yellville and one in Bull Shoals, were placed under the management of BRMC and are now closed. "I've been worrying about the past tendency of BRMC, about what they have done, and that is one thing that is making me very cautious about anything we enter in with BRMC," Arnold said.
Dr. Jim Bozeman also voiced his concerns. "I'm in favor of doing whatever it takes to keep the hospital operating as a hospital," Bozeman said. "I think everyone of us can agree this community needs a hospital. We've all seen people, or had relatives who would not be alive today without this hospital. I don't know what condition Bull Shoals or Yellville was in when BRMC took them over, but they're nonexistent today. So, if their ability to manage is such an outstanding attribute, two of the facilities they have taken over and managed is no longer in existence and I don't want us to be the third."
Hospital board member Al Roork said that because of the innuendos being spread about the closing of the Bull Shoals and Yellville hospitals, he began investigating the rumors. "What I've been doing today is researching this because I've heard about the hospital closings at Bull Shoals and Yellville," Roork said. "I took it upon myself because there's been so much innuendos spread here and around town that the reason they (BRMC) were going to take over was to close the hospital down. So, I researched it and I want you all to know that (those rumors are) just garbage. It didn't happen. I talked with Roy Danhuser about it. He's been an attorney for 45 years in Bull Shoals and gave the land the (Bull Shoals) hospital was built on. He and his wife also gave $50,000 to put the sewer system in (for the hospital). He said that not only did BRMC have absolutely nothing to do with the closing of the hospital, he said they came to their aid when it did happen and provided them with 24-hour ambulance service. They put in a clinic there which they later donated to the city. He (Danhuser) said the reason (the hospital) closed was because 268 deficiencies were found by the state that were never addressed. I also found out that what happened at Yellville had absolutely nothing to do with BRMC. That was 20 years ago. What actually happened was that the board of directors fired the hospital administrator and three doctors got mad and quit. BRMC came in and tried to save that thing and were unable to. BRMC had nothing to do with the closing of either one of those hospitals. He (Danhuser) said, 'I have known Barney Larry for many years. You can count on him 100 percent.' "
Roork told the other board members, as well as the public they should research this issue themselves and to not just accept what they hear.
"I have already done some of the research you (Roork) are talking about," Aldridge said. "I know about Bull Shoals and Yellville. To me that is one of the larger issues we need to address. We have had so many spin-offs, innuendos that are circulating and they need to stop. This meeting is for the employees and people in the county to know that what we, as a board, are looking at is something that may better Fulton County. We need to go into this without a preconceived opinion; to go in with an open mind and see what is the best thing for Fulton County and this facility."
Aldridge said that any agreement would have to come with safeguards to prevent the hospital from closing if, in a few years, BRMC decides they cannot operate both Salem and Mountain Home hospitals. "If BRMC decides it cannot operate both units we need to be certain we can get our entity back. We need a safety net in place in the contract. Also, we have employees who have been here for a number of years and as a board, we should try to negotiate some kind of rollover package for those employees if we choose to go with BRMC," Aldridge said.
Since the change in hospital administration a few months ago, changes have taken place at the hospital and more will come with the completion of the new addition. Many new services will be available to the area and should help generate much needed revenue for the hospital. The downfall, according to the board, is that there will be a three to four month period of time after the new addition is complete, before the hospital will see the increased revenue.
"We're trying to get some projections to see what things (financially) will be like in two to three months," Aldridge said. "We are trying to do that so we will have all the information we need to make a decision. We all need to step back and think about how important a decision this is for the county because this facility has got to stay here. That is the number one priority."
Bozeman said that he believes there are other avenues to be explored other than leasing out the facility. "No matter who runs or administers the hospital," Bozeman said, "they don't admit patients to the hospital. What we desperately need is two more admitting physicians. We need to explore all options before abandoning the ship. We're not sunk. You all know we're in bad financial shape but we've been in much worse financial shape in the past than we are right now."
According to the Letter of Intent signed on Oct. 25, BRMC has 90 days to present a proposal to the Fulton County Hospital Board.
The next regularly scheduled meeting of the hospital board will be held Monday, Nov. 26 at 7 p.m. Aldridge said because of increased interest by the public, the meeting will be held at the NAEC Orange Room in Salem, if scheduling arrangements can be made.
Jessica Goff and Janie Flynn contributed to this article.