• 59°

St. Mary#039;s partners on hospital study

St. Mary’s Medical Center and local leaders exploring new hospital options for the Ironton area are officially dating.

While it is too early to call the relationship a marriage and it might not be a full engagement yet, a strategic commitment between the two has been forged.

The Lawrence County Hospital Steering Committee and SMMC are working on a comprehensive feasibility study to examine exactly what the community needs and would support and how SMMC could partner

"If they (SMMC) can prove to themselves through our survey group, and through the work that is going to be done, that there’s a need for a facility in the Ironton area they are very interested in seeing if that’s a fit for them," said D.R. Gossett, executive director of the Ironton-Lawrence County Community Action Organization and chairman of the steering committee.

"St. Mary’s reputation is unparalleled in the Tri-State," Gossett said. "While it is much too early to determine if collaboration can happen, we believe that both organizations should come together to explore common strategic interests."

A perfect fit

Discussions for a new hospital in the area began almost immediately after the demise of the former River Valley Hospital. The Ironton facility was shuttered in January 2001 under a mountain of debt.

Discussions turned into action approximately two years ago when the Lawrence County Hospital Steering Committee was formed with CAO representatives, local elected officials and other economic development leaders.

One of the group’s first moves was to take the community’s pulse. It launched a study in the summer of 2004 to examine the community’s thoughts, desires and interests in a local hospital.

Study results indicated the survey respondents preferred SMMC for a potential new hospital development, Gossett said.

"We were pleased that the community favored St. Mary’s among all area hospitals for a potential collaboration," Gossett said.

St. Mary’s officials were equally pleased by the results.

"The citizens of Lawrence County have paid us a tremendous compliment," said Michael G. Sellards, president and CEO of St. Mary’s Medical Center. "We are certainly interested in discussing a mutually beneficial partnership with Mr. Gossett and the other members of the LCHSC."

Complete study

The next step in the partnership is two-fold. First, a member of the St. Mary’s management team will become a member of the committee. David Sheils, St. Mary’s Vice President of Planning and Development, will serve in this capacity.

"Having a SMMC representative on the committee is a good thing," Gossett said. "In this way SMMC will know first hand whether a new facility in Ironton is feasible and if SMMC is a strategic fit for Ironton."

Gossett said a new study soon will begin to more fully assess the needs.

"The consultant we’re considering using is one St. Mary’s has used in the past," Gossett said. "They will basically do a full-blown feasibility study. They’ll have a well-developed arsenal to determine what we can expect in this market."

Although the new study may cover much of the same ground covered by last year’s "phase 1" study by Cleveland consultant Art Wicinski, Gossett said the new study will dig more deeply into the financial aspects of a new medical facility.

"It’s essentially as if we’ve kind of sketched out a skeleton of a process and it looked good enough to go forward," Gossett said.

The new study is estimated to cost approximately $54,000. Gossett said grant funding is being sought to cover the expense, but that all of the partners on the committee are committed to help with funding if necessary. He said the study should be completed within four months or so.

No promises

The partnership is a key step, marking a public commitment to exploring options. It is not, however, a promise that a new hospital will be built, Gossett is quick to say.

"The biggest concern all along for St. Mary’s is to be very careful that they do not make any kind of promise to the community, yet," Gossett said.

"They are committing to try to help the community evaluate its needs," he said. "The reason they want to help is partly because they are a good community partner but also because they see a strategic possibility here for them.

"Strategically, St. Mary’s, with their reputation, would like to be able to expand," Gossett said. "And this part of L.C. is kind of untapped and underserved."

Gossett said the success so far of the steering committee is due to the cohesiveness of its members.

"I think one of the reasons that St. Mary has come this far with us and has been willing to join in, is that I think (steering committee members) are not looking back at past spilt milk and complaining about problems from the past."

What kind of facility?

The minute a discussion of a new facility begins, everyone wants to know what kind of facility, how big, where will it be located.

Gossett said it is too early to get into many of the specifics, but said some of the original assumptions on the type of facility needed had changed a bit since the group first formed.

Originally, the group was focused on bringing a critical access hospital with approximately 25 beds. By keeping the facilities size small, the group figured it would be eligible for rural hospital reimbursements.

But they quickly discovered that this model probably would not work.

"Believe it or not we are considered urban by the rules for critical care access hospital reimbursements," Gossett said, adding that the change doesn’t hurt the chances of creating a new facility. "We’ve thought all along that if you look at the amount of business that River Valley did, it far exceeded what it would take to justify a critical access hospital."

Besides, Gossett said, the details of what the community can support will come out of the new feasibility study.

"We want the process to drive what facility we land on," he said. "If there’s a need that clearly shows we need more beds than 25, then fine. Who knows what the future will hold?

"We obviously have a long road ahead," Gossett said, sounding curiously like someone who has just returned from a first date. "(For now) I’m tickled to death."