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Tallahatchie General expanding through public/private support

CHARLESTON — While other rural hospitals in the state are downsizing or facing closure, Tallahatchie General Hospital in Charleston is planning an expansion, thanks to community support and a little star power.

“I am a true believer in giving back to your community,” said Morgan Freeman of Charleston, an award-winning actor who stars in the recently released blockbuster movie, “The Sum Of All Fears,” based on the Tom Clancy novel.

“Obviously my first interest is that I live here,” he said. “This is home. This is the only hospital in east Tallahatchie County and I live in east Tallahatchie. And although I personally am as healthy as a horse, we have a lot of elderly citizens who are in need of health care. We have a lot of children who are in need of health care. They should be able to get the care they need without having to travel a long way to get it. I am totally committed to the prosperity and advancement of this hospital.”

Last December, the outlook was bleak when hospital administrators approached county supervisors about the possibility of closing the facility.

“We helped the hospital secure a note to get them back on their feet until they got switched over to critical care,” said Gregg Hodges, District 1 supervisor. “We made a commitment to help keep the hospital open. It’s vital to the community.”

When the 77-bed hospital, built in 1956, was converted to critical care hospital status in February, its payment method reverted to cost-reimbursed.

“It enabled our facility to compete and gave us the opportunity for growth,” said Joey Brunson, hospital administrator.

The Mississippi State Department of Health recently authorized 60 long-term care beds for Tallahatchie County. If Tallahatchie General receives the certificate of need for the additional beds, a facility will be added to the existing campus.

Earlier this month, county supervisors coordinated tours of Tallahatchie General with Freeman, Undersecretary of Agriculture Michael Neruda, USDA Rural Development officials, the hospital board of trustees, other local officials and Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) to discuss funding needs for the hospital and its planned expansion.

“This is a great example of what ‘new funding’ is all about,” said Nick Walters, state director of USDA Rural Development. “The days of going to one source — the federal government — to plop down a large sum of money to alleviate problems aren’t there anymore. It’s critical for us to find different ways to augment money with other dollars. In this case, the county has put in its money. Revenue will come from the state for the Medicaid beds. We’re looking at different pots of federal dollars. And Mr. Freeman, from the private sector, is putting forth dollars.”

The most pressing need, other than tangible improvements, is addressing the issue of paying medical professionals competitive salaries, said Freeman.

“We need money to pay them so that we have the doctors and nurses to give our people quality health care,” he said. “After that, there are many equipment needs that are waiting to be met here at Tallahatchie General.”

Since 1984, the Tallahatchie County Medical Foundation, which administers private donations, has purchased capital equipment and building fixtures for the hospital and nursing home, including wheelchairs, mattresses, beds, portable X-ray machines, new window coverings, freezers, refrigerators and lab equipment. The foundation has also funded patient activities.

“Mr. Freeman has been a contributor to the Tallahatchie County Medical Foundation for many years,” said Brunson. “Bringing the groups together with Mr. Freeman gave us the chance to maximize our money by giving us opportunities through matching grants to provide much-needed equipment for Tallahatchie General.”

Last July, Tallahatchie General received a $725,030 grant from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) for renovating the obstetrics suite, purchasing a CAT scan machine, replacing boilers and windows, installing a nurse-call and upgrading fire alarm and phone systems.

“Parts for these older systems were antiquated,” Brunson said. “We were in desperate need of updated ones.”

Under the USDA Rural Development Community Facilities Program, Tallahatchie General can apply for up to $100,000 in grant money with a 75/25 match, and a low-interest loan, said Walters.

“The low interest loan amount, around 4.25% for 35 years, can be applied to the 25% match,” he said. “They’re looking at a total of $4.5 million for the expansion and 100% of that can be financed, assuming the bonding authority would allow it.”

After Mississippi counties were calculated on non-employment rates instead of unemployment rates for this fiscal year, Tallahatchie County became eligible for set-aside grant money above its regular allocation through the Community Facility Program.

“This grant money will be gone at the end of the fiscal year, which ends in October, so we’ve been encouraging Tallahatchie General to get its application in fairly quickly,” Walters said.

With support from the federal, state and local governments and the private sector, the hospital will succeed, said Brunson.

“Tallahatchie General is here for the public, to take care of their health care needs,” he said. “We’re becoming stronger than ever. We’re not closing. We’re here for the long haul.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at (800) 993-3392 or lwjeter@yahoo.com</a.

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