Hempstead County Quorum Court to put up as much as $1 million to keep Hope's hospital open
At Thursday afternoon’s emergency meeting of the Hempstead County Quorum Court, the court followed suit with a decision the Hope City Board made Tuesday to put $100,000 a month at the disposal of those wishing to keep Wadley Regional Medical Center open should there be a need for transitional funds. The vote of the court was unanimously in favor of making up to $1 million available over a ten-month period to cover Hope’s hospital’s payroll. 

A video of the meeting in its entirety is available after the document that follows this article. 

Appearing again to advocate for the appropriation of funds as she did in Tuesday’s Hope City Board meeting Tuesday, Hope-Hempstead County Economic Development Corporation Executive Director Anna Powell set the context for the request and answered questions from Justices of the Peace. Pafford Emergency Medical Service CEO Jamie Pafford-Gresham also spoke, as did District Prosecuting Attorney Ben Hale, acting as county attorney for this matter. 

"We're 38 percent industry and manufacturing here in Hempstead Count, and so you know that we could be affected. And if you want to look at other communities where their hospital no longer exists, you can see what will happen to those industries over decades and over the course of time. So I think we all agree that the hospital is very important for our community," Powell said.

Powell said that with both the city of Hope and the county putting up as much as $2 million toward keeping the hospital open, this sent the message that the community is serious and that there is financial help in getting the hospital set up for new ownership.

Powell added that the nonprofit group formed locally, Southwest Arkansas Healthcare Authority, on which Powell is a member had come to an agreement to make the requests for funds from the county and the city with the eventual goal of returning control of the community's hospital to the people of the town. With ownership of the real estate in the hands of one entity and that of the hospital and its license in the hands of Steward Health Care, the issue is complicated. This was a point echoed by Pafford-Gresham. 

"If our hospital closes for one minute, that license is over and getting another one is an act of Congress. And other experts can talk to you all about that, but I want you to understand there is urgency in this, and that's why we're coming to you under these circumstances," Powell said.

The county and city's approval of the funds was needed so quickly, Powell said, because Hope's hospital could be up for bid starting next week as the bankruptcy judge has authorized the selling off of several hospitals owned by the Massachusetts-based Steward Health Care. Documents will be submitted Monday reflecting the support of the county and city governments.

Friday, a report was published in the Boston Herald that the deadline for bids in the first round of hospital auctions has been delayed to July 15th "with an auction to commence on July 18 and a sale hearing on July 31." 

Hale stressed that due to legal requirements in the city's ordinance the county had to put up funds for the city's funds to be made available. He also said that there's a chance not all the funds would be needed depending on the needs of the eventual buyer of the Hope hospital and the timing of the potential receipt of state emergency funding. 

"It's structured too so that any any expenses do come back to the court for approval, so it'll be reported to you," Hale said. "The [county] judge has to sign off on everything, as well. So it's not like this is just a blank check. This is basically having the funds there should the hospital need them to assure the doors don't close so, because if they close, they won't open again."

Questions from the JPs concerned whether the funds could be obtained by taking out county money currently in certificates of deposit in local banks. County Treasurer Judy Flowers raised concerns about the county incurring sizable penalties for early withdrawal of these funds. County Judge Jerry Crane stated after the vote that a potential $60,000 penalty would not compare to the losses to the county and the regional economy from the closing of the hospital. 

Former Hope Mayor and Farmers Bank Market President Dennis Ramsey said he did not believe a bank would impose such a penalty considering the emergency that caused the county to need to make an early withdrawal of CD funds.  

JP Steve Atchley agreed this may be the case based on a previous, similar instance he had seen.

Continued Ramsey, "[Banks]  also have the option if you just need 100,000, ifthey want to charge the penalty. They can charge on that 100,000 and you lcan eave that 400,000 [in the CD]." County Treasurer Flowers had mentioned she may need to withdraw from a $500,000 CD the county has bought.

Pafford-Grisham told the court that if the hospital is allowed to close, her own company would likely come to the court with a half a million dollar request to help defray increased costs to transport patients longer distances and wait longer to board those patients at hospitals. "

"I believe the goal of SWAHA (Southwest Arkansas Healthcare Authority) is to get control back in the hands of the people of Hempstead County. That's you. That's the city. And to do that, we want to own the property back again, and we want to make sure that we can control the license of the hospital and who operates it within that hospital. That's the goal of most of the people that have been around the table trying to discuss what goes on," Pafford-Gresham said.

JP David Clayton read the three-page ordinance appropriating the funds. The motion to pass it was made by JP Jessie Henry. 

In the meantime, Powell said, the Southwest Arkansas Healthcare Authority is filing paperwork to apply for American Rescue Plan Act funding and other funding from the state of Arkansas to assist with potential transition costs that may be needed to upgrade the hospital's facilities and keep it running as a new owner takes control, but because of the time it takes to receive such funds, the city and the county's help is needed immediately.

"Our intention is not to ask you to operate a hospital long term. There may be needs from our community for the future for the long term support our hospital, but we're not asking you for that today. We're asking you simply to support our hospital in the time of need. And so you may not get an invoice ever. You may get one next month. We don't know. Hempstead County Economic Development will be the holder of those funds. We will be dispersing those funds. Legally, that's the way that it can be done," Powell said.

In answer to a question of whether the hospital's staff were in anxiety, Powell said, "If we don't have these funds, we risk our our employees at our hospital who have families to feed. They have rent to pay, car payments to pay, and if they are lacking their paycheck, they can't operate their household. Whenever there's instability in the household, people have to go look for their job. And we don't want that. We don't want our health care professionals to go searching for other jobs, because they're in fear."

The ordinance passed by the quorum court can be seen below. After the documents, SWARK.Today's video of the complete meeting can be seen.