Voters in Phenix City, Ala., rejected a tax increase earlier this month that would have raised enough money to finance a new community hospital.
But now, Nashville-based Ameris Health Systems-the small for-profit selected by the Russell County Commission to operate a tax-supported facility-may look for ways to build the hospital without the help of public funds.
Ameris President Joe Herring said he filed a certificate-of-need application one day after voters resoundingly rejected the tax increase on Election Day. He expressed optimism Ameris-which manages five hospitals in the South, one of which it owns-will win approval to build a $25 million to $30 million, 70-bed hospital in Phenix City.
"This would be a replacement facility, which has received the support of the political leadership," Herring said. "I'm very positive."
Herring said he filed the CON application after meeting with county officials in Phenix City. The tax increase was expected to provide about $17 million for the hospital construction project and would have added about $20 to the annual tax bill on a house valued at $50,000. "We've got to determine if there's enough business there for us to pursue (and fund) the project, now that the county's out of it," he said.
The new facility would replace debt-plagued Phenix Regional Hospital, a 114-bed facility that was shut down in March by parent Columbus (Ga.) Regional Healthcare System, which consolidated its operations across the state line at the Medical Center, its 537-bed hospital in Columbus. The one-hospital system includes physician practices in Georgia and Alabama.
Herring said his company would put up the money to build the new hospital, which would include an emergency room and a full range of other medical services. He said the company, which would own the facility, will make a decision on the project by mid-December, adding that he is confident he could build, finance and successfully operate a small community hospital, even though one failed miserably under the leadership of a larger, regional healthcare system.
Though the Medical Center is across the border from Phenix City, the closing of Phenix Regional has had a significant impact on medical services in Russell County, said Russell County Commissioner Tillman Pugh. Several doctors reportedly have followed the hospital's lead and moved their practices closer to the hospitals in Columbus.
The prospects for a new hospital built without public funds have improved recently, Pugh said, because several physicians in Columbus have expressed interest in investing in the project. He said the county is eager to help in any way necessary, including tax breaks and some assistance in preparing the land on which the hospital might be built.
Officials with Columbus Regional said they couldn't afford to maintain the 114-bed hospital, which had a physical plant more than a half-century old, because of declining Medicare and Medicaid payments. The Georgia-based health system, which purchased the hospital in 1994 for about $12 million, had planned to build a $50 million replacement hospital in Phenix City until it decided to close the facility after several years of mounting losses.
The hospital had been a consistent money loser after earning profits in the first couple of years of its affiliation with Columbus, according to published reports. Phenix Regional lost about $1.2 million in fiscal 2001 and reportedly was on track to lose about $4 million in 2002.