By Chris Butler, Editor Tennessee Watchdog
Selling the Williamson County Medical Center to private interests could help more hospitals and clinics set up shop in the area, said one of the few county commissioners who wants to study the idea.
People who live in and around Williamson County and want more competition would get it, said County Commissioner Gregg Lawrence.
As long as Williamson Medical is under county control, hospital administrators will take advantage of Certificate of Need laws. Those same hospital administrators will clog up the works when it comes to anyone trying to build a competing hospital, said County Commissioner Todd Kaestner.
The potential rewards of selling the hospital to private interests are too great to ignore, both men said.
“The biggest thing is you can bring in a private owner who has the resources to do capital investment of a significant size. You could add a lot more services at Williamson Medical,”
Lawrence said, adding the hospital currently does not offer spinal surgeries, heart surgeries, or cancer treatments.
As reported, most county commissioners won’t even consent to a formal study to find out if selling the hospital is in the county taxpayers’ best interests. Many of those commissioners either serve on the hospital’s board of trustees or have other conflicts of interest.
Two of the county commissioners who sit on the hospital’s board of trustees, Jack Walton, and Bert Chalfant, said they won’t relent and they won’t agree to privatize. They also said the idea of competition troubles them.
Walton and Chalfant, though, aren’t putting the county’s best interests first, Lawrence said.
County commissioners, if they choose, could also forego selling the hospital and form a partnership of some sort with a private entity.
More people, Lawrence went on, would come to Williamson County for medical care. That, he added, would lead to more high-paying jobs.
“We as a county government don’t have the resources to invest what’s needed to provide those services, but a player with deep pockets and lot of resources could,” Lawrence said.
“There are a lot of things people in Williamson County have to go to Nashville for.”
Walton, however, said the rules of competition that affect private businesses have no bearing on hospitals. Walton said he ought to know that better than anyone. Walton, as it turns out, said he just got out of the hospital on the day Tennessee Watchdog interviewed him.
The hospital Walton went to was Vanderbilt — in Nashville.
“Competition is usually pretty healthy for different people, but there is a difference when it comes to medical care,” Walton said, without elaborating.
Chalfant, meanwhile, said competition is not what he fears.
“I see this as being able to limit the capability of the hospital. It has nothing to do with competition,” Chalfant said.
“The hospital now is a not-for-profit. If it’s turned into a for-profit then it will destroy the hospital.”
Chalfant would not elaborate.
Lawrence said he has no doubt plenty of private parties would buy Williamson Medical.
“We’ve been told it’s one of the most desirable hospitals in America. About 95 percent of patients there have insurance. That is very unusual, because at most hospitals about 30 to 45 percent of their patient base is uninsured,” Lawrence said.
“We have a very low Medicaid and TennCare population. Having a high population on Medicaid and TennCare causes hospitals to lose money. The demographics of Williamson County is what makes it desirable.”
No one at Williamson Medical returned repeated requests for comment.
Williamson Medical, as a county asset, is sapping the county of potential new resources, said County Commissioner Todd Kaestner.
“The hospital is not a financial drain on the county. But it is a drain in the sense that Williamson Medical successfully opposed development of a hospital in Spring Hill. It opposed the development of urgent care centers in Brentwood. There was one from Tri-Star and one from St. Thomas,” Kaestner said.
Officials with Tri-Star and St. Thomas did not return requests for comment.
“The county-owned hospital directly and aggressively impedes the development of other health care infrastructure in the county, and that you can quote me on.”
The staff at Williamson Medical, Kaestner went on, “lobby intensely, anxiously, and actively” for the state’s Certificate of Need Board to not allow urgent care centers and acute care hospitals in the area.
“HCA owns land in Spring Hill to build a hospital but they can’t get a CON primarily because Williamson Medical opposes it,” Kaestner said.
Chalfant, though, said that’s just the way it is.
“That is part of what happens there,” Chalfant said.
“That is just a part of doing business.”
As reported, Williamson County needs about half a billion dollars to pay for planned growth, and selling the Williamson County Medical Center to a private company is one way to start raising that money, said Kaestner, Lawrence, and Commissioner Sherri Clark.
The county has owned the hospital since the 1950s.
The only alternative to selling the hospital, other commissioners say, is to raise property taxes — year after year.
Walton and Chalfant said secondhand information has a lot to do with the position they’ve taken.
“Dixon County had a hospital and sold it to HCA, and I’ve been told they regret that,” Walton said.
Chalfant said he heard similar things about HCA.
“Everything is cut to the bone if it’s a for-profit. Look at the way HCA operates now,” Chalfant said.
“I was in the hospital two days ago, and a nurse begged me not to sell the hospital. She said she came from HCA and that they destroyed it.”
No one at HCA returned Tennessee Watchdog’s requests for comment.
Kaestner, though, said he’s not hell-bent on selling Williamson Medical.
“Do I want to sell the hospital? I don’t even know,” Kaestner said.
“But I damn sure want them to stop opposing economic development of healthcare in the county. You can quote me on that too.”
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Contact Christopher Butler at [email protected]
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Reprinted with permission from Tennessee Watchdog