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joining forces

Athens-Limestone and Huntsville community hospitals announce partnership

By Holly Hollman 340-2445

ATHENS — Athens-Limestone Hospital and Huntsville Hospital officials announced plans for a partnership Thursday, a move that Athens Mayor Dan Williams said probably saved Athens-Limestone.

"I think our hospital would have been threatened with closing if Crestwood had built a hospital in Madison, and we weren't partnered with Huntsville," he said.

Officials said the two hospitals have discussed a partnership for about four years. Although hospital officials stressed a proposed hospital in Madison didn't trigger this affiliation, both oppose a for-profit hospital like Crestwood Medical Center building in Madison.

Athens-Limestone and Huntsville are nonprofit community hospitals.

Athens-Limestone has fought proposals from both Crestwood and Huntsville to build in Madison. Athens-Limestone officials have said that would create empty beds, lure surgeons who live in Madison to that facility and take paying patients from Athens.

In 2005, the State Healthcare Coordinating Council voted to modify the State Health Plan and approved 60 more hospital beds for Madison County, opening the way for Crestwood or Huntsville to build another facility.

Athens-Limestone filed a lawsuit saying that approval was invalid because there was not an official quorum at the meeting. The parties agreed to go back to the state council for a new vote, and the state council again approved the 60 beds.

Crestwood and Huntsville both applied to build a 60-bed hospital. A hearing on those proposals is Jan. 16.

Crestwood has sent fliers to eastern Limestone County and Madison residents that give the benefits of it building the hospital.

Crestwood says its proposed hospital would generate $1 million in local taxes for Madison County, which would go to roads and schools.

Huntsville plans to build its proposed hospital at its Madison Medical Park on U.S. 72, said CEO David Spillers.

Attorney Jim Moffatt, who is chairman of the Athens-Limestone Hospital Board, said Athens-Limestone still contends Madison does not need a hospital, but it will withdraw its opposition to Huntsville Hospital.

"Medicine is not a capitalistic venture," Moffatt said during a press conference about the partnership. "But if a hospital is to be built, it should at least be owned by a community hospital. We won't oppose Huntsville, but we probably won't invest in it."

So what does the partnership between the two mean?

Officials said they are negotiating terms and plan to keep those negotiations exclusively among the two hospitals until July 1, 2007.

Both hospital boards have signed letters of intent for the affiliation. Moffatt said the move does not require state council approval.

Hospital boards

Moffatt and Huntsville's board chairman, Russ Brown, said both hospitals will retain their respective boards, but board members from each hospital can serve as ex-officio members on the other's board. The entities that make appointments to those boards, such as the Athens City Council, will continue to make appointments to their respective hospitals.

"If the administration of the two hospitals didn't see eye to eye, the two boards would work that out because the boards represent the public," Moffatt said.

Management would remain unchanged, and hospital staff would remain employees of their respective hospital boards.

However, the two now can make financial and facility changes to help patients, said Cary Payne, acting CEO for Athens-Limestone.

For example, by partnering, they can make capital and product purchases cheaper.

The two hospitals can share resources and expertise, such as Huntsville providing Athens-Limestone the ability to offer cardiology service.

Both hospitals now can make plans to have compatible equipment, such as monitors. That way, if Athens-Limestone transfers an emergency patient to Huntsville, the Athens-Limestone monitor will be compatible at Huntsville.

"And I would be proud for Huntsville to add our name to their marquee," Moffatt said, adding that Athens-Limestone would also be proud to add Huntsville's name.

Moffatt and Brown said the two still are working out details like allowing members of their respective Wellness Centers to be able to use both Athens-Limestone and Huntsville's centers.

The hospitals get funding from their local government entities, and how each hospital will handle that funding and funding joint ventures is unknown. Each hospital's foundation, a fund-raising organization, will remain separate.

Fees will remain as is for now, Moffatt said, because each hospital is under contract with insurance providers and physicians. Moffatt said as contracts come under renewal, however, the two hospitals can work toward having the same fees.

Moffatt explained the partnership as two ships with two captains and two crews.

"We each sailed where we needed to go," Moffatt said. "In the future, we'll sail together with both captains and both crews, but one destination."

Moffatt said it would be false to say Crestwood's proposal hasn't spurred the partnership. A for-profit hospital, Moffatt said, likes "good healthy bodies" that can pay that are in that area of western Madison now.

"But would it be there for the long run if those healthy bodies were no longer there?" he asked. "A community hospital would be."

Quality of care

He said the first intent of Athens-Limestone and Huntsville was to provide better quality of care. Fighting a new for-profit hospital is secondary.

"Improving quality of care was our focus before this issue surfaced," Brown said.

Moffatt said Athens-Limestone wanted to give its patients more options, such as the variety of treatment available at Huntsville's emergency room, Huntsville specialists who can work at Athens a couple of days a week to keep patients from
driving to Huntsville, and adding outpatient surgery and diagnostic centers.

The partnership won't impede Athens-Limestone's plans to continue with its capital improvements, Payne said.

At the end of May, a new diagnostic center is to open on the 40 acres Athens-Limestone owns at Lindsay Lane and U.S. 72 in eastern Athens. The $6 million overall project also will include doctors' offices and an ambulance bay.

Payne said Athens-Limestone also has raised $500,000 toward expanding its emergency room. It wants to add seven beds for a total of 19, which will cost an estimated $1 million. That project is scheduled for 2008.

Payne, who has served as chief operating officer, said he is interested in the CEO position that becomes vacant Jan. 1 with Phil Dotson's retirement.

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