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Facility less dependent on Medicaid and Medicare than many small rural hospitals

George County population drives $3.5-million hospital expansion

LUCEDALE — At the same time that some rural hospital administrators in Mississippi have traveled to Congress to testify that the 1997 reforms of Medicare and Medicaid funding are devastating health care for people in isolated communities, the George County Hospital is undergoing a $3.5-million expansion.

Two administrators of rural hospitals testified recently in Washington that a drastic cutback in Medicare and Medicaid payments particularly hurts rural hospitals where an estimated 70% of patients rely solely on Medicare or Medicaid payments. In some cases reimbursement for Medicare and Medicaid was cut in half by the Balanced Budget Act of 1997.

The Medicare and Medicaid reforms are expected to save $100 billion through 2002. But some rural hospital administrators say the reforms are threatening their very survival.

Paul Gardner, administrator of the George County Hospital, said his hospital is also being impacted by the changes of the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. But he said it is not quite as traumatic for George County because the population of the county is growing.

“With a lot of your small rural hospitals in the state, the population base is stagnant or declining,” Gardner said. “Their patient population is pretty much established, and there seems to be a higher rate of Medicare and Medicaid. We are experiencing some good, steady, healthy growth in population. We are evolving into a bedroom community for Mobile and the Mississippi Gulf Coast.”

Gardner said a lot of the new residents are younger people typically covered by insurance at work. That makes the George County Hospital less dependent on Medicaid and Medicare than many small rural hospitals.

“Medicaid and Medicare are major players here as in any hospital in the state,” Gardner said. “Any changes will be felt by us, but it won’t have as much impact as some other small hospitals in the state.”

George and neighboring Greene County, whose residents also use the George County hospital, were recently listed among the top 10 fastest growing counties in the state. The county is building new schools, a large number of new homes are being constructed, and the county is experiencing growth in retail businesses. Gardner said as the economy grows, it creates business opportunities for everyone, including those in the health care industry.

The George County Hospital expansion is the first addition since 1977. About $3.5 million is being spent on the 20,000-square-foot addition. The addition will include a new emergency room, a new waiting and patient registration area, and an entirely new OB/GYN area with four LDRP (labor delivery recovery postpartum) rooms and a new nursery. Two new operating rooms will be added along with four beds for outpatient surgery preparation and eight beds for outpatient recovery.

Gardner said more procedures are being done on an outpatient basis because modern technology such as laparoscopic surgery expedites the recovery process. The hospital will also have a new six-bed intensive care unit/critical care unit. Seven new private patients rooms are being added to the current 47-bed hospital.

Groundbreaking ceremonies for the new addition were held this month with construction anticipated to be complete in the summer of 2000. The hospital currently employs 340 people with a 10% increase in staff expected when the addition is complete.

Cooper Medical Buildings is the contractor for the project. Financing was handled by a combination of a bond issue by the county on behalf of the hospital in 1997 combined with a zero-interest loan made available the through Singing River Electric Power Association.

The hospital is also currently working on separate financing for a new medical office building, a 20,000-square-foot facility that will house physicians who are now scattered around over town.

“The combination of these two project will greatly enhance and improve our campus and medical care in George County and surrounding areas,” Gardner said. “We are anticipating getting into the planning and design phase during the next month of so. We hope to see construction start sometime this fall.”

The community has gone from three physicians in 1991 to 14 physicians today. The office building will be on the same property as the hospital.

Contact MBJ staff writer Becky Gillette at mullein@datasync.com.

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