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Letter to the Editor of the Fayette County Record 3/17/2023

To the Editor:

St. Mark’s Hospital has converted to a limited-service Rural Emergency Hospital in a desperate attempt to remain financially viable.  Supposedly, our only options are a new property tax, bankruptcy, uncertainty and doubt, or a new County budget item for St. Marks.  I have never been intimately or emotionally involved in St. Mark’s affairs so I believe I can offer an objective analysis of the current situation.  I want to save the hospital, but I despise property taxes.  To solve the hospital’s problem in a way that doesn’t permanently increase property taxes, retains local control and increases public oversight, I propose that we think outside of the box.

St. Mark’s leadership claims that a locally-controlled, full-service community hospital with positive cash flow is sustainable if only they could service the mortgage debt of approximately $13 million ($1.9 million for 7 years).  I take this claim at face value, and I propose that the County purchase the real estate from St. Mark’s and then grant them a long-term lease.  Of course, there are terms and conditions that must be carefully considered to give the public its desired oversight while meeting St. Mark’s operational needs.

The County has options to finance the debt over a longer period of time and could eventually recover the funds from St. Mark’s in the form of rent.  Once the debt is extinguished, so long as the hospital generates positive cash flow and enough rent is collected to maintain the premises, there should be no long term increase in property taxes.  In last Thursday’s Commissioners Court meeting, Mr. Hillhouse implied wealthy individuals might consider rescuing the hospital if it were better managed and more transparent.  Perhaps they would be willing to contribute to mortgage debt reduction.  Perhaps there are other ways to negotiate and reduce the debt and tax burden.

Under this scenario, should St. Mark’s fail, the county would retain the hospital property as an asset we can use or sell.  It’s ±31 acres of prime real estate in La Grange that comes with a beautiful, functional hospital.    Did I mention we may be able to co-locate the planned new justice center to the property, and who knows what else?

Clearly, there must be a commitment to win back the trust and support of the community.  From my conversations, the nearly universal conditions seem to be as follows: there must be a fresh board, new management, and adequate accountability and oversight.  Granting the County the privilege to appoint board members may provide such oversight.  The hospital would still be privately run by St. Mark’s, but the change in the board and management could be just what the doctor ordered to save St. Mark’s.

The change in status of St. Mark’s to an REH has already impacted the County budget.  It is projected to cost perhaps an additional million plus per year in EMS costs and the pain will surely worsen.  Why not re-direct those funds away from the black hole into a hard asset?

I believe the hospital is headed towards bankruptcy.  Bankruptcy is risky; we would likely lose local control (unless we purchase the hospital out of bankruptcy) and the process could be very painful.  We shouldn’t kick this can any further down the road.  I believe this property acquisition and leaseback idea is viable.  Of course, it needs to be fully vetted and fleshed out by those with expertise in this sort of thing.

It is time for bold action; time to gather all interested parties together and hammer out a solution.  This plan could potentially save the hospital without permanently increasing our property tax burden. 

View more details and contribute at https://KingWm.com/Save-St-Marks/.

William Bernsen, Plum