Not so fast, said Walker County commissioner Bebe Heiskell, responding via e-mail within an hour of the Erlanger statement.
“It would be malfeasance for the counties to approve anything without their own appropriate due diligence,” Heiskell said in her statement.
She said the counties “have pledged to individually or in some combination make sure there is available cash to carry Hutcheson through the final stages of this negotiation process.”
But Walker County attorney Don Oliver, who also acts as legal counsel for the Authority Board, said the counties have retained an Atlanta law firm to perform an independent review of the contract approved by Erlanger and members of the transition team formed from Hutcheson’s boards.
Oliver said the counties’ officials and advisors performed an initial review when they received the latest contract a week ago, then forwarded it to the McKenna Long firm.
“They sent their initial review back on Friday with several items of concern marked,” he said Monday.
Oliver declined to offer specifics but did say that there is more than just the money at issue.
Heiskell indicated that McKenna Long is providing “a full red line review” for the principal parties to negotiate this week.
“Our professionals have dropped everything, given it full attention, and pushed forward our due diligence review in record time,” she said, estimating that all issues should be worked out by the end of next week.
Erlanger board of trustees chairman Dan Quarles’ said in their statement that, upon acknowledgement of financial security by the leaders that empower the Hospital Authority Board of Walker, Dade, and Catoosa Counties, he is ready to bring the proposal to his board for approval.
Quarles said that Erlanger’s pledge of transition funding for HMC of up to $20 million over the next 18 months will require a secure backing from the counties.
All three counties have rejected any consideration of direct taxation for funding — the most likely move is to put up Hutcheson’s facilities, currently under appraisal by Erlanger, for such security.
And the combination of cash funding won’t include Dade, as county executive Ted Rumley indicated at a town hall meeting last Thursday.
“I’m ready to go with the contract right now,” he said then, but added that Dade does not have any cash to put in the mix for securing Erlanger’s commitment.
Oliver said any cash put up by Walker or Catoosa for operations in the interim will be paid back by Erlanger once the partnership is in place.
“We strived with Erlanger right up front that they’ll have to cover that,” he said. “The taxpayers are not going to be at risk.”
In the Erlanger statement president and CEO Jim Brexler said that backing from two of the three counties “would allow for an expedited execution of the management agreement.”
If the contract is approved by the Erlanger board, Brexler said the appraised value of the facilities Hutcheson’s campuses would serve as additional county backing.
The proposed partnership between Erlanger Health System and Hutcheson Medical Center calls for the much larger Chattanooga hospital to be responsible for the daily operations of the smaller Fort Oglethorpe facility. According to Erlanger CEO Jim Brexler, other plans include:
· bolstering the number of physicians admitting patients to Hutcheson
· developing systems to support those physicians and encourage former HMC doctors to return there to practice
· collaborating with existing healthcare workers in the Hutcheson Emergency Department to help strengthen its ability to accept patients
· possible plans for an extension of Erlanger Children’s Hospital to the Hutcheson campus
· having the two healthcare systems co-branded as one