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Lawrence County Hospital continues tradition of service

MONTICELLO — Since 1960, Lawrence County Hospital has provided healthcare for residents of this sparsely populated rural area in Southwest Mississippi. Built as a county-owned facility, this 25-bed community hospital found a way to continue providing care when faced with the difficulties besetting small rural hospitals.

“In 2001, the county board of supervisors here was wise enough to realize they had a problem and began talks with Norman Price, administrator of Southwest Regional Medical Center, to become a critical care facility,” says Semmes Ross, administrator of Lawrence County Hospital. “They worked out an arrangement with Southwest to lease and operate the facility with the county retaining ownership of the building.”

Located in McComb, Southwest Mississippi Regional Medical Center is an integrated, comprehensive health system that serves a population of about 200,000 in seven predominantly rural Mississippi counties and two parishes in Louisiana.

Lawrence County Hospital’s association with Southwest began in 2001 and in early 2002, the Monticello-based facility was designated a critical access hospital. All employees of Lawrence County Hospital are hired by Southwest, including Ross. His background includes 10 years with the Franklin County Hospital and auditing work with the state and federal governments.

“The affiliation with Southwest gave us a good opportunity to add services and new equipment and to stay open,” Ross said. “We kept all the employees. We had a good staff. We just ran out of money.”

He says Lawrence County Hospital has been able to put in new programs and equipment, including a new CAT scan and modernization of all laboratory, respiratory therapy and x-ray equipment. The waiting room was also re-done.

“We kept the same name and when you walk in the doors, you don’t see any difference,” Ross said of the healthcare facility that maintains its identity with the community it serves.

Bob Smira, president of the Lawrence County Community Development Association, stresses the importance of keeping an active healthcare facility in the county.

“It’s crucial to the care and well being of residents and it’s also an important tool for economic development,” he said. “Having a hospital here means a lot when we speak with retail and industrial prospects.”

Smira cites a study done by the National Rural Healthcare Association on the impact of rural hospitals on the local economy. Rural hospitals differ from urban hospitals in that they generally are not serving residents outside the region.

However, they are often large community employers, and while the patients do not generally come from outside the local area, much of the income supporting the local hospital sector is from outside the local area. This differs from most other components of the service sector in rural areas and is due to the existence of health insurance, both public and private.

In terms of the public sector, rural hospitals depend heavily on reimbursement from Medicare because of the aging population in rural areas.

“We run about 88% Medicare on the acute side,” Ross says, “and we get 101% reimbursement on Medicare patients. We don’t have that many Medicaid patients.”

The healthcare study points out the significance of these federal dollars coming into a rural community. “The hospital is one of the few economic entities that brings in money from the outside,” Smira said. “These are monetary injections into the local economy. As such, they set off a successive round of spending and responding throughout the local economy. Most communities work very hard at economic development to attract firms that will produce a good to be exported and bring in sales revenue. A hospital does just that. Its services are exported since it brings money in from outside.”

Mike Moak, chief information officer with Southwest Health Systems, says there are benefits to both parties from the regional system’s affiliation with Lawrence County. “It keeps the facility in the community and it’s good for everyone” he said. “We have no other facilities of this kind at this time, although we are in discussions with another rural hospital.”

The critical care designation for Lawrence County Hospital means patients can stay up to 96 hours before being discharged or transferred to a larger hospital. “That’s not a problem,” Ross said. “If we can’t take care of them in that time, they probably need to go to a larger hospital.”

Practicing physicians at Lawrence County may choose to transfer patients to any hospital or may transfer them to a swing bed designation, a Medicare program that allows patients to stay for longer periods of time for needs such as physical therapy.

“In our case, the affiliation with Southwest was a salvation. We’re in better shape than we’ve ever been and have benefited by Southwest’s expertise and management,” Ross said. “The affiliation has been well received. The patients don’t know the difference and the staff likes it because we have more services and can do a lot more things.”

The regional hospital performs hiring, payroll, bill paying and other administrative operations for the community hospital. Ross says these services also are a big help.
A not-for-profit institution licensed by the State Department of Health and the Mississippi Hospital Association, Lawrence County Hospital has five physicians on staff and operates a 24-hour emergency room and ambulance coverage.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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