University of Mississippi Medical Center

Coast athletes remember Mike Leach

116 views – Jeff Haeger – 2022-12-13 16:48:42

Athletes who played for Mike Leach are remembering the iconic coach today.

Leach, 61, died Monday night after suffering a massive heart attack at his Starkville home on Sunday. He was taken to the for treatment after the attack.

Here is what they had to say about Leach:

alum Marquez Dortch:

“The that we got after Sunday’s practice about what had happened to Coach was very unexpected. We didn’t know what was going on or what happened. And me waking up to a phone call this morning and me getting the bad…

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Mississippi State Head Football Coach Mike Leach dies at age 61

122 views – Rick Gogreve – 2022-12-13 17:14:52

Heavy hearts across the Magnolia today as we mourn the loss of Mississippi State Head Football Coach Mike Leach.

Coach Leach died last night at the in Jackson, following complications from a heart condition. He was 61-years-old.

Leach was finishing his third season in Starkville and 21st as a head coach.

Mississippi State University President Mark Keenum says “Coach Mike Leach cast a tremendous shadow not just over Mississippi State University, but over the entire college football landscape.”

His family thanked friends…

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MSU Bulldog family, college football community mourns the death of Coach Mike Leach

81 views – WXXV Staff – 2022-12-13 08:16:42

Mississippi University Head Football Coach Michael Charles “Mike” Leach passed away Monday night at the in Jackson, Mississippi, following complications from a heart condition. He was 61.

In a statement, the Leach family said: “Mike was a giving was a giving and attentive husband, father and grandfather. He was able to participate in organ donation at UMMC as a final act of charity. We are supported and uplifted by the outpouring of love and prayers from family, friends, Mississippi State University, the hospital staff, and football…

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Mississippi State Head Coach Mike Leach remains hospitalized

111 views – Jeff Haeger – 2022-12-12 21:57:01

Mississippi Head Coach Mike Leach remains hospitalized in critical condition.

According to the , Leach suffered a massive heart attack yesterday in Starkville and was transferred to the in Jackson.

The public outpouring of support for the one they call ‘The Pirate’ has been moving and nothing short of incredible.

At the age of 61, Leach is in his third season with the Bulldogs and is coming off his first Egg Bowl victory over on Thanksgiving Day to cap off an 8-4 regular season, giving him an…

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UMMC won’t save struggling Delta hospital


‘We did not have a Plan B’: UMMC won’t save struggling Delta hospital

officials on Friday said negotiations to take over the struggling Greenwood Leflore Hospital have ended, and an agreement is not possible. 

Without an agreement with UMMC, the hospital could close before the end of the year. 

“Despite the best efforts of all parties involved, it has become clear to us that an agreement between the University of Mississippi Medical Center and Greenwood Leflore Hospital will not be possible,” said Dr. Alan Jones, associate vice chancellor for clinical affairs at UMMC. 

He said an agreement is not possible due to several factors, the primary one being “the current realities of economics that all health systems are facing in this challenging environment.” 

Greenwood City Council President Ronnie Stevenson told Mississippi Today that UMMC’s decision came as a shock when he learned about it around lunch time on Friday. 

UMMC and Greenwood Leflore had been in talks over a potential partnership agreement since the summer. Greenwood Leflore’s interim CEO Gary Marchand told staff last week that any agreement would not be ready before early 2023, despite earlier hopes of completing the process by the end of the year. 

The Greenwood City Council and Leflore County Board of Supervisors, the joint owners of the hospital, voted last week to put up nearly $10 million to cover outstanding Medicare debts and deferred maintenance costs that UMMC said it did not want to shoulder if it took over operations. 

“I am very disappointed in their decision,” Stevenson said. “They have held us up for months, thinking this was going to go through, and we as a city and a county met all their demands or agreed to meet all their demands, and for them to pull out at the last minute, leaving us dry like this — it’s just difficult to digest right now.”

Stevenson said local leaders are not aware of another potential partner to operate the hospital. 

“We did not have a Plan B,” he said. “But we’ve got to go find one.”

In the meantime, the hospital will likely have to keep cutting jobs and services in an effort to keep the doors open as long as possible, he said. 

Leflore County Board of Supervisors President Robert Collins said in a statement that the supervisors had “always been concerned” that a deal between UMMC and the Greenwood Leflore Hospital would not go through. 

“Understanding that we are not experts we have retained the consulting services of Samuel Odle and (sic) experienced healthcare executive,” the statement said. “Mr. Odle’s role is to view the situation and advise the Supervisors and Community on feasible options for maintain (sic) healthcare in our community.”

Odle, a senior policy advisor at Bose Public Affairs Group previously led hospitals in Indiana, where he is based.

Marchand told employees on Friday morning that the hospital would lay off up to 80 employees to reduce costs as negotiations with UMMC continued. The memo contained no indication that the partnership agreement had been taken off the table. 

A press release from Greenwood Leflore Hospital suggests the decision came as a surprise to hospital officials. 

“Although we certainly can understand and appreciate the challenge of providing healthcare services in the post-pandemic era, this decision was not expected based on the progress that had been made regarding a lease transaction,” the statement said. “The financial realities of providing healthcare services are impacting both organizations.” 

When asked whether the would step in to help the hospital, Lt. Gov. Hosemann said he is disappointed the parties couldn’t reach an agreement.

“The financial issues facing healthcare are becoming universal in our state. We need a universal plan to address them,” he said in a statement to Mississippi Today. 

Speaker of the House Philip Gunn did not immediately respond Friday afternoon. State lawmakers traveled to Jackson this week for a special session to pass a $246 million tax incentive deal to help an out-of-state corporation expand operations in the state. Gov. Tate Reeves, who focused his public comments this week on the project’s job creation, did not include policies for rural hospital closures or any other pressing needs the state faces in his special session call.

Officials from both hospitals said they will continue discussing physician services in Greenwood and Leflore County, including UMMC’s operation of a general pediatrics clinic and an OB-GYN clinic. UMMC will soon also an internal medicine and primary care clinic in the area. 

“We will continue to evaluate other opportunities as they arise in order to maintain some health care services in the community,” said Jones. 

Stevenson said the hospital is critical to Greenwood and Leflore County. 

“This community needs a hospital,” he said. “We don’t want to have to rush to Jackson … We want to save lives here, and having a community hospital will save lives.”

More than half of Mississippi’s rural hospitals are at risk of closure, new data from the Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform shows. The state has the largest number of rural hospitals at immediate risk of closure in the nation at 24. 

Since 2005, five rural hospitals in Mississippi have closed.

State Health Officer Dr. Daniel Edney alluded to the ongoing threat to Greenwood Leflore Hospital during the state board of health meeting last month, when he described health care infrastructure in the Delta as “very fragile” and said at least six hospitals in the region are facing dire financial challenges. At the time, negotiations between UMMC and Greenwood Leflore to be on track. 

“Despite what’s been reported in the media, currently there are no solutions for those hospitals,” he said. “No one’s coming to the rescue.”

Editor’s note: Kate Royals, Mississippi Today’s community health editor since January 2022, worked as a writer/editor for UMMC’s Office of Communications from November 2018 through August 2020, writing press releases and features about the medical center’s schools of dentistry and nursing. 

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Greenwood Leflore: County, city commit $9 million for hospital


County, city commit $9 million for Greenwood hospital, but cuts still loom

The city of Greenwood and Leflore County have put up a total of $9 million in a last-minute effort to save Greenwood Leflore Hospital, a key provider and economic engine for the Delta.

The financially struggling hospital has been negotiating with the over a lease agreement since the summer. A key sticking point in the talks was Greenwood Leflore’s outstanding debts to Medicare and the funds necessary for deferred maintenance on hospital facilities. UMMC did not want to be responsible for those costs after any transition. 

But now, Greenwood and Leflore County have each approved a $4.5 million letter of credit, for a total of $9 million in local financial support to pave the way for UMMC to take over hospital operations. 

With negotiations stalled, UMMC told Greenwood Leflore they would not be able to complete lease agreement documents in time for the year’s last meeting of the Institutions of Higher Learning, which needs to approve any agreement, the Greenwood Commonwealth reported earlier this week. Interim CEO Gary Marchand told hospital employees in a memo Tuesday that the hospital will need to make additional cuts in order to stay open through the end of the year, and it still may have to close its doors before then

The funding from the city and county doesn’t on its own speed up the timeline for a resolution, but it does appear to a barrier to an eventual agreement. 

Leflore County Supervisor and Board President Robert Collins told Mississippi Today that hospital leadership had made bad decisions for years, like excessively expensive contracts with physicians, redundant administrative positions, and too many staff for the number of patients they were serving. 

“We just could never get a meeting with them to sit down and talk about it,” Collins said of the hospital. “The situation’s been going down here for the last 10 years or more … We had a consultant come and tell us four years ago, if we stayed on the course that we was on, we’d be broke in four years, and they were right.”

But the hospital is so critical to its community that Collins said his support for the funding was an obvious choice. People who don’t have transportation need a health care facility nearby, and people without insurance can rely on the hospital for critical care. If the hospital were to close, people might wind up being airlifted to Memphis. 

“And if they do have to have a helicopter ride, they’ll be in debt the rest of their lives,” Collins said. “It’s just so important that we have health care here in Greenwood, Mississippi.”

Marchand told hospital employees in a memo Friday morning, before the county supervisors met and approved a letter of credit for the hospital, that the city had approved “a funding commitment” to support the lease agreement with UMMC.

“With sufficient funding in place to resolve several key challenges, we will be meeting with UMMC’s Executive Leadership to assess the status of our negotiations and the potential for a transaction date in early 2023,” he wrote. 

The hospital said it would make decisions on service cuts and other potential cost-saving measures by next week. 

Though the last scheduled meeting of the IHL board in 2022 is Nov. 17, UMMC could ask the board to hold a special meeting to approve any agreement with Greenwood Leflore. That would allow the board to vote as soon as the agreement is ready, rather than waiting until January. But Patrice Guilfoyle, communications director for the hospital, said there are no plans to do that. 

When Mississippi Today followed up to ask why not, spokesman Marc Rolph said, “We have no comment on that question.”

Collins said he wants to make sure local leaders understand what services UMMC plans to maintain if it does take over Greenwood Leflore. County leaders have a Zoom call scheduled with UMMC next week, he said, the first time they’ll talk directly with the prospective new operator. 

“We welcome UMC,” he said. “We welcome them to come. We just want to make sure that we have an opportunity to sit down and talk with them.”

The letter of credit approved by the county does not specify that UMMC must be the entity that takes over Greenwood Leflore and could be used to support an agreement with any partner.

This article first on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Some leaders ignore health care woes at Hobnob Mississippi


State’s health care woes ignored by some, but not all at annual Hobnob

“Only positive Mississippi spoken here,” a phrase coined by former Gov. Kirk Fordice, was the theme for the most part of the politicians at the annual Hobnob event sponsored by the ’s Economic Council.

But two politicians – Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann and Insurance Commissioner Mike Chaney – devoted much of their speech at the Mississippi Economic Council’s annual Hobnob to the state’s troubled system and the financial difficulties that many of the state’s hospitals are facing.

“Would you locate (a business) in a state that you don’t have health care?” Chaney asked of the crowd of about 1,000 primarily business leaders gathered at the Mississippi Coliseum to hear from the state’s political leadership. “I don’t think you would.”

Hosemann said the Senate would be looking at health care issues during the upcoming session. He also said the legislative leadership should not be scared away from efforts to improve health care by “that X word.”

Hosemann was presumably referring to expansion where, through primarily federal funds, the state could provide health care for about 200,000 poor , mostly people who work in jobs that do not offer health insurance. Hospitals have argued that expanding Medicaid like 38 other states have done would help them financially.

At the very least, the lieutenant governor said the state should extend Medicaid coverage for mothers from 60 days after giving birth to one year.

“How can we not be pro-life and pro-child at the same time?” asked Hosemann. “That does not make sense to me.”

While not definitively endorsing Medicaid expansion, Hosemann has said the state should look for the most efficient and inexpensive way to improve health care access in the state. Many argue that expanding Medicaid with the federal government paying most of the costs would be the best way to do that.

Chaney told reporters after the speech he supported Medicaid expansion and that he believes Hosemann does, too. But passing Medicaid expansion will be difficult with both Gov. Tate Reeves and Speaker Philip Gunn in opposition.

Reeves kept his speech positive, not mentioning health care at all.

But after the speech, he reiterated to reporters his opposition to Medicaid expansion.

“I remain opposed to expanding Obamacare in Mississippi …” Reeves said. “No doubt we’ve seen certain health care institutions in our state and across the country struggling, due to leadership decisions that were made in those specific instances. The pandemic certainly didn’t make it any easier.”

Reeves said a solution to Mississippi’s dire health care issues is doing away with the state’s certificate of need (CON) requirements. CON laws regulate approval of major projects or expansions for health care facilities, aiming to control health care costs by reducing duplicative services and restricting where new facilities can be built and operated. Mississippi and 34 other states have varying CON laws.

Reeves said this thwarts competition, and “competition tends to drive down costs.”

“For instance, the doesn’t have to adhere to CON rules, but everyone else does,” Reeves said. “That doesn’t make any sense whatsoever.”

Opponents of removing the CON process say they fear it would result in even fewer hospitals and other health care facilities in poor and underpopulated areas.

On other topics, Reeves said Mississippi is in historically great financial shape and vowed to continue to push to eliminate the state’s personal income tax.

“You have my word that as long as I’m governor I will never stop fighting to fully eliminate the income tax in Mississippi,” Reeves said. He said this will make the state more competitive for economic development with Texas, Florida and Tennessee – states that have no personal income tax.

“Mississippi in virtually every category is climbing the national ladder,” Reeves said. He said the state has seen a record $3.5 billion in capital investment so far this year with “more capital investment in 2022 than we saw in the five years previous to me becoming governor.” He said the state has made great gains in K-12 education, including increasing the graduation rate from 72% to 88.5% during his time in office, now above the national average of 86.5%.

Reeves vowed to push for “good jobs with above-average wages,” and quoted from his first state-of-the-state address: “At the end of my time as governor, we will measure our success in the wages of our workers.”

According to a recent U.S. Census report, Mississippi has the nation’s lowest median household income at $46,511, to $67,521 nationally. Mississippi also has the highest poverty rate, with 18.8% of people living at or below the poverty level.

Chaney spent much of his speech criticizing both the University of Mississippi Medical Center and for their inability to settle their contract dispute, which is impacting tens of thousands of Mississippians. People insured through Blue Cross have been out of network with UMMC since April 1.

“Both parties in this dispute are wrong,” Chaney said. “UMMC is asking for too much, and Blue Cross can give more.”

Chaney later told reporters that he believes the dispute could be settled, though, in the coming days.

Chaney said UMMC is “using (patients) as pawns for a money grab … On the other side Blue Cross is not right, either.”

The Republican insurance commissioner also told the crowd that UMMC has written a letter to a Medicaid managed care company demanding a higher reimbursement rate. If UMMC is not included in the network for the managed care company, this could impact health care for many of the Mississippians covered through Medicaid.

There are three companies – Magnolia, United and Molina – that have managed care contracts with the Mississippi Division of Medicaid. Under the contracts, the companies provide health care services for the Medicaid patients at a set rate paid to them by the state. Under that process, the companies reimburse the health care providers for the services provided to Medicaid recipients.

In response to Chaney’s comments, Dr. Alan Jones, associate vice chancellor for Clinical Affairs told Mississippi Today: “In the course of normal business operations, all health care institutions enter discussions with payor partners about new or current contracts, sometimes several months before the end of a current agreement. These routine engagements are necessary to ensure contracts meet the needs of our patients who are their health plan members.

He added, “Currently, we are in normal contract-related discussions with Magnolia Health Plan on the agreement that covers UMMC care provided to their managed Medicaid health plan members. Our intent is that these standardized discussions will soon yield a new agreement and we will continue our strong partnership with Magnolia and health care relationship with their members.”

Chaney also predicted that efforts to negotiate a lease agreement between the Greenwood LeFlore Hospital and UMMC would be unsuccessful and that the financially troubled hospital would close, negatively impacting health care throughout the Delta.

Chaney said the state’s health care issues must be solved if the state is to prosper.

Also speaking were Auditor Shad White, Secretary of State Michael Watson, Attorney General Lynn Fitch, House Speaker Philip Gunn, Agriculture and Commerce Commissioner Andy Gipson and Treasurer David McRae.

Gipson, wearing his cowboy hat, sang a portion of the song “A Country Boy Can Survive” before praising the work of Mississippi farmers.

Watson, who has been mentioned as a possible gubernatorial candidate at some point – perhaps even against Reeves in the 2023 Republican primary – said, of next year’s election, “We need leaders who care more about Mississippi than their careers. I hope you help me elect those folks.”

While not being specific, Watson referenced some “tough times” possibly ahead for the state in terms of health care.

White said that as auditor, he gets to “look under the hood of Mississippi government,” and see what works and what doesn’t. He said the state’s workforce is the biggest issue he sees, and he offered four ideas to improve it.

“First, an earned income tax credit,” White said. “If you go from unemployed to employed, you get a tax cut … 29 other states have this … It’s one of the best things to get people off the couch and off the sidelines and working … There are some folks who want to just hand a bunch of money to poor people. That is not going to juice our economy.”

White said the state should use its federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families money – the source of a major fraud and misspending case White’s office uncovered – to fund the tax credits, as 20 other states do.

“Second, we’ve got to address brain drain,” White said. “From 2015-2019 we spent $1.5 to $2 billion on higher education, and we only kept 50% of the graduates in Mississippi.”

White said his office has a fellowship program that helps cover tuition for future auditors, provided they stay with his office for two years. He said this could be replicated for other professions statewide.

“Third, fatherlessness,” White said. He said too many children are growing up in broken homes and are not prepared to succeed when they become adults. He said, “There are all sorts of social maladies from not having engaged fathers in the home.” White said the Junior ROTC program in Jackson is an example of a program that helps with this issue – with retired military people mentoring youth. He said the program at JPS has a “100% graduation rate.”

Fourth, White said, “is the city of Jackson.”

“Jackson is our number-one talent magnet in this state,” White said, “with 30% of our graduates coming to work in .”

He said, “Jackson’s magnet is going to turn off unless we learn how to collect the garbage, keep the water clean and not be the per-capita homicide leader in the country.”

This article first on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Former Gov. Haley Barbour hospitalized after wreck

Biloxi - Local News Feed Images 011 – Associated Press – 2022-10-27 07:04:05

Former MS Gov. Haley Barbour

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour was hospitalized Wednesday after wrecking his SUV while swerving to avoid a dog on a rural road, law enforcement officials said.

Barbour, 75, had the wreck near Wolf Lake outside Yazoo City, about 50 miles northwest of Jackson. Barbour lives in Yazoo City.

Yazoo County Sheriff Jake Sheriff told The Associated Press that Barbour was airlifted to in Jackson after the wreck, which happened at about 5:30 p.m. A release…

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Greenwood Leflore Hospital faces closure as negotiations with UMMC stall


‘A death sentence’: Delta hospital faces closure as negotiations with UMMC stall

Greenwood Leflore Hospital could close by the end of November as negotiations between the hospital and the stall, interim CEO Gary Marchand told staff in a memo Tuesday. 

After waves of layoffs and service reductions over the last few months, hospital administrators had hoped to stay afloat until the end of next month and then transition operations to UMMC by early December. They are now looking at further cuts “that might allow certain services to continue into 2023,” Marchand wrote. 

“In the absence of this plan, the closure of the hospital remains a possibility,” the memo said. 

The two parties had been negotiating a lease agreement with an eye toward Nov. 17, the date of the last meeting for the Institutions of Higher Learning, which would need to approve any lease agreement. 

The Greenwood Commonwealth reported that Marchand said UMMC told him Tuesday they had out of time to finalize documents ahead of that meeting. 

Federal and regulations and questions around the hospital’s outstanding debts remain stumbling blocks in the negotiations. The Commonwealth reported that Greenwood Leflore owes Medicare $5.6 million for advance payments it got when the pandemic started. UMMC does not want to take on that debt, and the Delta hospital is hoping its owners – the city of Greenwood and Leflore County – will step in.

Marchand and hospital spokeswoman Christine Hemphill were not available for interviews on Wednesday, but on Wednesday afternoon Hemphill provided written answers to questions sent by Mississippi Today.

Marchand met with the Greenwood city council at 9 a.m. Wednesday to discuss whether the city can help pay the hospital’s debts. Hemphill said the city council “acted to fund a letter of credit to resolve their share of the funding gap,” and that the county will meet Friday to discuss the same topic.

She added that the hospital plans to make decisions next week as to what lines of service to cut.

UMMC and Greenwood Leflore have been working on the agreement since the summer. But State Health Officer Dr. Daniel Edney seemed to allude to the ongoing threat to the hospital’s existence during the state board of health meeting earlier this month, when he described infrastructure in the Delta as “very fragile” and said at least six hospitals in the region are facing dire financial challenges.

“Despite what’s been reported in the media, currently there are no solutions for those hospitals,” he said. “No one’s coming to the rescue.”

Mississippi Today has reported on the financial struggles at Greenwood Leflore, Sharkey Issaquena Community Hospital, and Delta Health System. Liz Sharlot, the health department’s communications director, said she could not name the other hospitals Edney was alluding to because that information came from “private conversations.”

IHL could hold a special meeting later than Nov. 17. But UMMC told Mississippi Today on Wednesday they are not aware of any plans for that. 

The hospital declined to answer other questions about the negotiations. 

Gov. Tate Reeves could call a special session of the Legislature to craft a package to keep Greenwood Leflore open, but has given no indication that he will. His office did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

Dr. Roderick Givens, a radiation oncologist at the hospital, attended a meeting for physician staff where Marchand gave updates at 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday. He said Marchand reassured employees that UMMC still intends to pursue the lease agreement.

“That at least satisfied everyone that hey, no one’s walking away from the table,” Givens said.

Givens said the closure of the hospital would further reduce access to health care for Delta communities that are disproportionately low-income.

“It essentially becomes a sentence to a number of people,” he said. 

The 208-bed hospital is also one of the largest employers in the area, so its closure would hurt the local economy as well. According to Hemphill, Greenwood Leflore directly employs 589 people full- and part-time, and the food provider Aramark employs an additional 70 people full-time.

Givens said he didn’t understand why state leadership has not stepped in to help hospitals around the state that are struggling to stay open. Mississippi has one of the country’s highest rates of people without insurance, due to the state’s refusal to expand to low-income working adults. 

That means that hospitals face a higher burden of providing care for which they will never get paid. Hemphill said that costs Greenwood Leflore about $550,000 every month, around 6 to 7% of the hospital’s total costs.

Mississippi hospitals are also dealing with supply chain and staffing issues that affect small hospitals around the country. 

“It’s kind of baffling why there’s not at the state level, at least meaningful conversations that say hey, how can we help?” Givens said. “What is it that the government can do with regards to assistance to keep these hospitals open? It’s kind of a deafening silence.”

This article first on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

Sensing long-term challenges, Singing River seeks buyer


Singing River hospital is not on the brink of financial collapse. So why is it seeking a buyer?

Editor’s note: This story was reported and published in a collaboration between Mississippi Today and the Sun Herald. Isabelle Taft reported for Mississippi Today and Gautama Mehta reported for the Sun Herald.

– Unlike other Mississippi hospitals, Health System is not facing an immediate financial crisis – and that’s exactly why its leaders say they need to find a buyer. 

The roughly 700-bed system, based in Jackson County on the Coast, came through the COVID-19 pandemic in decent shape, with revenue up in 2021. But the long-term forces buffeting Singing River and small hospitals around the country mean the future is still dark. 

Costs are rising, especially for nursing staff. The hospital system needs to make improvements to facilities and equipment after years of underspending. Singing River has almost no leverage to increase payments from the ’s dominant commercial insurer, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Mississippi. And in part because Mississippi has refused to expand Medicaid, a significant number of the system’s patients have no insurance, meaning Singing River doesn’t get paid for their care. 

Hospital leaders say they need a bigger chain to take over so they can benefit from economies of scale and greater negotiating power with suppliers and insurers. If they wait until a crisis point, they’ll have less leverage and possibly fewer interested buyers. 

“We’re coming at it now at a place of strength,” CEO Tiffany Murdock told a community group in the town of Hurley in August. “And in five years, I can’t promise you the same thing.”

It’s the latest demonstration of a trend with potentially troubling consequences for patients: In the world of American hospitals, only the huge survive. 

From 2005 to 2017, the share of hospitals around the country that are part of a larger system rose from 53% to 66%

In Mississippi, a 2017 merger made Baptist Memorial Health Care the largest hospital system in the state. The University of Mississippi Medical Center has expanded its footprint to Grenada, Holmes County, and the Gulf Coast and is bidding to lease hospitals in the Mississippi Delta. Rush Health Systems, which owns seven hospitals in east Mississippi and west Alabama, this year merged with Ochsner, the Louisiana-based system Singing River leaders see as their likely buyer. In 2019, Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady, also based in Louisiana, acquired St. Dominic Memorial Hospital in Jackson.

State and locally owned hospitals like Singing River are a fading model. The American Hospital Association reports that, of the country’s 6,100 hospitals, about 950 are owned by local governments, down from 1,130 in 2008

The potential downside of spending years trying to fight massive economic forces – and ending up in a much weaker negotiating position with a potential buyer – is clear enough in Mississippi. Hospitals like Greenwood Leflore are struggling to stay afloat long enough to find a savior or be forced to close their doors. 

A growing body of research shows hospital consolidation usually increases costs for consumers by reducing competition. And despite hospital leaders’ claims about the resource benefits of joining a larger chain, research also suggests it doesn’t improve outcomes for patients. 

“We know that consolidation is going to increase prices and potentially decrease access to care,” said Christopher Whaley, a health economist at RAND Corporation. “But if the alternative is that the hospital or physician group goes out of business and exits the market entirely, then maybe that’s a tradeoff we have to make.”

Tiffany Murdock, CEO of Singing River Health System, speaks during a public hearing over the potential sale of Singing River Health System during a Jackson County Board of Supervisors meeting in on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022.

While small hospitals like Singing River look for buyers, bigger players like Ochsner – one of the biggest hospital systems in the Gulf South – have been looking for new acquisitions. 

In 2020, Ochsner and Singing River announced a strategic partnership, and Singing River acquired Garden Park Medical Center in Harrison County, rebranding it as Singing River . During Hurricane Ida, the partnership allowed Ochsner patients in hard-hit southeast Louisiana to move to the Gulfport hospital. 

Corwin Harper, Ochsner CEO for Northshore and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, said expanding into Mississippi makes sense in part because so many already use Louisiana health care facilities, and the states face similar issues with workforce recruitment. 

“With Ochsner being the largest health system in Louisiana, it’s almost a natural migration for people to access the resources that Ochsner has,” he said. 

Murdock, a registered nurse whose career in hospital administration has included stops in California and Oregon, was named the administrator of Singing River Gulfport. When former CEO Lee Bond stepped down earlier this year, Murdock was named interim CEO of the health system and then CEO. She is the first woman to hold the position.

In June, the hospital trustees voted to pursue a sale to a “like-minded hospital organization,” though Ochsner is generally the only name that comes up in Jackson County. 

A report by the firm Raymond James found that while the hospital’s revenue had rebounded in 2021, rising expenses had cut margins. The hospital sees a high rate of uninsured patients, and federal payments to care for them are dropping. And as a small system, it has little opportunity to access loans or to increase cash flow by negotiating with insurers, since most of its patients are on Medicaid or Medicare and the commercial market is dominated by Blue Cross. 

“It’s a nationwide issue,” Ryan , executive director of the Mississippi Rural Health Association, said of hospitals’ financial struggles. “But it is especially important here because we are a more poor state. Our hospitals are in the red, like on the verge of closure in a critical state, and it’s not because our hospitals are doing anything wrong or there’s anything wrong with Mississippi. It’s just because we’re a poor state and we have less money to go around.”

The pandemic also highlighted the benefits of scale. 

“We were spending, you know, a nickel on a surgical mask five years ago when during the height of COVID, we’re spending $5 a mask and buying thousands of masks,” Murdock said at the community meeting in Hurley.

Ochsner, by contrast, built its own plant to make personal protective equipment in Lafayette. 

But scale can come with a loss of local autonomy.

Ochsner also has a lease agreement with Hancock Medical Center on the Coast. In May, Ochsner closed the labor and delivery unit at the hospital, citing the low number of deliveries that made it hard to operate the unit safely. That left the county without a single labor and delivery unit and frustrated some Hancock County residents and leaders. 

Over the summer, a Singing River retiree named Irby Tillman poised to derail hospital executives’ plans. 

Under Mississippi law, anyone can force a referendum on a public hospital sale by obtaining a petition with at least 1,500 signatures. Tillman, who worked as a carpenter at the hospital, was at one of the board of supervisors meetings where the sale was discussed. He heard an attorney say that the supervisors would make the decision – unless someone forced a referendum.

“I happened to be standing there and I said, ‘Well, I’ll take that challenge,’” he said. “I don’t think five men should have that big decision.”

But even if Tillman had never launched his petition drive, pursuing the sale would have required Singing River executives to embark on a kind of political campaign to persuade not only supervisors but also their constituents to support the sale. 

The hospital is the second-largest employer in Jackson County with more than 3,500 employees. People all over the county remember births and deaths, emergencies and routine check-ups, first jobs and decades-long careers at Singing River. 

Many of them also remember a profound betrayal: For years, the hospital secretly stopped paying into retirees’ pension fund before it collapsed in 2014. A settlement in a federal class-action resulted in lower payments than retirees had been promised. 

Murdock embarked on a county-wide speaking tour late this summer. She spoke at school district convocations and rotary club meetings, the chamber of commerce and churches, trying to convince people to support the sale. 

At a special meeting for pensioners, Murdock assured them the sale would not affect the pension settlement

Meanwhile, Tillman traveled the county, too. In late August, he and his cousin Paul Wise, also 73 and a Singing River retiree, spent several hours outside Ixtapa, a Mexican restaurant in Vancleave. They both grew up in Pascagoula, two of their grandmother’s 75 grandchildren. Wise was leaning toward supporting the sale, while Tillman was leaning against it. 

Paul Wise and Irby Tillman, Singing River retirees, collect signatures in support of a referendum on selling the hospital outside a restaurant in Vancleave, Mississippi.

Tillman prided himself on never saying a word about how he thought anyone should vote, only emphasizing the importance of having a say in the process. The men carried a handmade poster that said “Let your voice be heard” and was decorated with small American flags. Everyone they talked to wanted to see a referendum. 

All five supervisors and even Murdock signed the petition.

“If I didn’t sign, I didn’t want (that) to get in the way of the goal, which is to move this forward,” she said. “And so I didn’t want that to be the headline. I wanted the headline to be like, ‘This is the right thing to do, whether there’s a petition or not.’”

But she was wary of what a referendum could mean.

Mississippi Today could locate only one such referendum in state history. Oktibbeha County voters roundly rejected a proposal to sell OCH Regional Medical Center in 2017. If that happened in Jackson County, Singing River leaders said the county would have to raise taxes and still be unable to cover rising costs. 

In the end, Tillman did not gather enough signatures to require a referendum. It rained heavily in the weeks before the deadline to turn in the petition, and Tillman relied on old fashioned methods to obtain signatures.

“Water and ink don’t go together too good,” he said. 

And after months of discussion, showing up to board of supervisors meetings and public hearings, he was leaning toward supporting the sale anyway, he said. 

Irby Tillman addresses Randy Bosarge during a Board of Supervisors meeting on the possible sale of the Singing River Health System in Pascagoula on Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2022. Tillman started a petition to bring the sale to a public vote.

The Jackson County Board of Supervisors doesn’t yet have a specific timeline for when the request for proposals will be finalized and buyers can begin submitting bids. 

The potential buyer frequently mentioned by name in Jackson County is Ochsner. But other hospital chains could make a move, too. 

The Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System (FMOLHS), which operates St. Dominic Memorial Hospital in Jackson and hospitals in Louisiana, said in a statement that it is “aware” that an RFP has been issued. 

“FMOLHS regularly evaluates opportunities to expand access to care by partnering with quality health systems to bring together outstanding clinicians, the most advanced technology and leading research to ensure that our patients receive the highest quality and safest care possible,” said Kevin Cook, chief operating officer.

The sale will leave Mississippi with one less locally owned hospital, and it may be an indication of the future facing every small hospital in the state. 

Richard Roberson, general counsel and vice president of policy at the Mississippi Hospital Association, said Singing River’s situation highlights the structural forces working against Mississippi hospitals. 

“I think that is what’s scary about it – you do see a hospital that is a strong hospital, a strong health system, and as good as they do things, they’re still struggling,” Roberson said. 

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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