Hospital plan clears hurdle: Lafayette County board OKs next step

By Errol Castens / Daily Journal Oxford Bureau

OXFORD – Negotiations among Lafayette County, Oxford and Baptist Memorial Health Care Corporation officials toward building a new $250 million, 250-bed regional medical center in Oxford made a leap forward Monday night.
In a public meeting of the city and county boards with several representatives from Baptist, the Board of Supervisors voted 5-0 to pursue a Memorandum of Understanding to sell the current Baptist Memorial Hospital-North Mississippi, which is jointly owned by the county and city, to the Memphis-based non-profit.
“Baptist has gone beyond their original ideas … to meet our criteria. I applaud them,” said District 1 Supervisor Mike Pickens, who made the motion. “We’ve done everything we know how to do to make sure you get the best healthcare that can be provided to Oxford and Lafayette County.”
Oxford aldermen will likely vote on the issue at their regular Feb. 1 meeting. Two of their members recused themselves from the issue because of connections with the hospital; another was absent from the meeting for a family illness.
Baptist leased the facility and its Certificate of Need – essentially, a state-issued license – from the two entities in 1989, before state law allowed publicly owned hospitals to be sold. Officials said Baptist has since invested $165 million in expansions, upgrades and other capital improvements to the facility, getting lease extensions at each step that now reach to 2034. The 13-acre campus and recent seismic codes that would require new foundations before building upward, however, preclude any further expansion on the 13-acre, landlocked site.
“We reached the conclusion that putting another $40 million in this site for another 15 years is wasting money,” said attorney Dick Cowart, who presented Baptist’s proposal before a crowd of perhaps 200 people at the Oxford Conference Center.
New technology now makes 16-foot floor spacing standard in hospitals compared to the Oxford facility’s 12-foot spacing. Several crucial departments are projected to need from 25 to 37 percent more space just to keep up with the next few years’ demands. Current patient rooms, Cowart said, cannot be made ADA compliant and do not meet other industry standards.
The hospital system has proposed buying out its lease and the current building for $60 million, to be split between Oxford and Lafayette County. It would commit to building a new hospital at a cost of at least $250 million, with at least 250 beds, on at least 50 acres.
Baptist officials declined to discuss where the new facility would be located until a formal agreement is concluded on its purchase of the existing hospital. Some audience members questioned what a move would do to the value of nearby real estate, but Oxford Mayor Pat Patterson, answered, “I think that’s a Baptist decision.
“Our primary concern is quality healthcare and getting fair value for what we own,” Patterson added. “I own five houses within about 200 yards of Baptist, so it affects me, too.”
After Cowart’s presentation and well into a lengthy Qamp&A session, Don Brewer, a businessman and former supervisor candidate, asked the question that was on many a mind.
“What is it that’s the holdup in this program?” Brewer asked, prompting widespread applause.
Board of Supervisors President Lloyd Oliphant defended the detailed process.
“We are as enthused as we possibly can be about the possible expansion of Baptist, but … you can’t do this, with all due respect, overnight,” he said.
Cowart said if the sale can be inked soon, the Certificate of Need could be transferred late this year, ground could be broken as early as July 2012, with occupancy of the new facility in July 2015.
“I think both boards should be commended for holding each other’s feet to the fire to ensure that the people of Oxford and Lafayette County get the best deal possible,” former alderman Bill Baker said after the meeting. “Baptist is committed to putting a first-class hospital here.”
Contact Errol Castens at (662) 281-1069 or errol.castens@djournal.com.