Plan to build new, smaller hospital was 3 years in the making
By DON FLETCHER
News Staff Writer
During the Atmore City Council’s September 10 workshop, the mayor and council were given some insight into the planned construction of a new, state-of-the-art medical center for the community and surrounding area.
Atmore Community Hospital Board Chair Nancy Lowrey and Escambia County Healthcare Authority Chair Ruth Harrell shared the lead on a presentation that revealed the anticipated cost of the new hospital, as well as the proposed facility’s patient capacity and its various components, and to express a need for city owned land near Interstate 65.
“The reason we are here today is to talk with you about a piece of land out near Rivercane that we would like to use for our new hospital,” Lowrey told the mayor and city council. “That’s the area we have been discussing and (that) we would like to talk with you about today. We are hoping the city will donate the land for this project.”
She said location of the new facility in Rivercane would give it higher visibility, help stem the loss of area patients to medical facilities in Bay Minette and Mobile, and draw patients from surrounding communities that currently travel elsewhere for treatment.
The ACHB Chair addressed community concerns over the fate of the current hospital building, which has been in operation for more than 50 years.
“From our perspective, we are very open and we would like to see a community committee formed to determine what is the best option for us,” Lowrey said. “Can the building be repurposed, or should it be turned into green space for some new development? I can tell you that the authority board is committed to making sure that the building is not just left vacant.”
Lowrey told city officials that an effort is being made to secure the anticipated $30 million needed to fund construction of the medical complex, which would consist of 16-18 inpatient beds and a 14-bed emergency department, along with an outpatient surgery department, an urgent care center, and office space for primary care physicians and specialists.
Harrell said the decision to build a new medical center here was not a hastily reached decision, but a well-developed plan that has been in the works since 2015.
“This is not a flash in the pan,” she said. “We’ve been working on this thing for over three years.”
During a question and answer period after the presentation, Councilwoman Susan Smith asked how long Atmore Community Hospital had operated without a profit, and Harrell indicated that hospital ledgers have been posted in red ink for nearly a decade.
“It’s been about eight or nine years since it’s run in the black,” Harrell said. “I don’t have the actual numbers in front of me, but that’s my estimate. It started back when we entered into a  lease agreement with Baptist [Healthcare] for both hospitals [ACH and D.W. McMillan Memorial Hospital in Brewton]. They actually became the owner of the two hospitals in the county.”
The Brewton facility was the first to exercise an exit clause to get out of the agreement and “disaffiliate” with the healthcare giant. The Atmore facility continued to operate under the agreement. “What happened during that period of time, we began to see our financials dwindle,” Lowrey said. “It took several years for us to realize that [the Baptist agreement] wasn’t working. From that time on, while Atmore stood alone with Baptist, our financials began to go down. I’m not going to say we were never in the black, but we were mostly in the red.”
Smith asked if the Medicaid-Medicare reimbursement process, which works against small, rural hospitals, was the biggest financial challenge faced by the local hospital.
“No, it’s losing our market share to other area hospitals,” Lowrey answered. “We have to find a way to get those customers back.”
Councilman Chris Harrison asked about the fate of the community of doctors’ offices and healthcare-related businesses that now exist in the shadows of ACH, if the local hospital is relocated.
“Those doctors are a part of Atmore Community Hospital; they’re employed by Atmore Community Hospital,” Lowrey explained. “That would leave some vacant buildings there, but the age of those buildings is pretty much as old as the hospital, their condition is pretty bad.”
Harrell vowed that the community would not be left without a hospital whether the ongoing plan to build a new medical center comes to fruition or not.
“It’s not just Atmore; rural hospitals all over the nation are in trouble,” she said. “So we had to make a tough decision on this board. We had to decide if we wanted to succumb to what everybody’s saying about rural hospitals, that you might as well get satisfied with an emergency room or urgent care. Or, we could bite the bullet and do what this board has been brave enough to do.
“So, no, we’re not going to close this hospital. We’ve already lost one hospital in this county [Abernathy Memorial Hospital in Flomaton, which shut its doors in 1990], and it was hard on Flomaton. It affects the economy of any town to lose its hospital.
“We’ve had some recommendations from some of our leaders who say to just shut it down and have an emergency room or urgent care. But we’re not going to do that, and that’s why we made this decision. Is it the right decision? We’re praying a lot. The people of Atmore say they need a new hospital; we’re trying to support that.”
News photo by Don Fletcher