Jellico city leader ‘cautiously optimistic’ as management company shows interest in running hospital

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JELLICO, Tenn. (WATE) – There is hope a rural hospital in our region may reopen.

Jellico city leaders are talking with Boa Vida Healthcare, a hospital management company, reportedly interested in running their community hospital. City Councilwoman Sarah McQueen confirmed the ongoing discussions and said the council voted to further explore the company and its financial situation last Thursday.

In late February, council voted to terminate a contract with the hospital’s previous operator, Rennova Health. The notice gave the company until this Wednesday to vacate; however, the hospital closed March 2, less than a week after the vote.

There is no board overseeing the hospital’s future now that its closed. This leaves council responsible for vetting any potential management companies on their own.

“We want to make sure we’re not being given empty promises, that these companies aren’t going to come in and kind of drain the resources that we have in the community,” McQueen said. “We’re really looking for a responsible community partner that’s going to take care of our community the way it needs to be.”

The pressure builds every day the doors are closed. McQueen is also a physician assistant and a local health provider. She explained the closure has resulted in longer travel times for patients in need of scans and X-rays as well as acute in-patient, stabilizing, care.

“In essence our ambulance folks, our EMTs, who are phenomenal, a lot of that burden is now going to be on them to stabilize these folks. … Now they are going to be the ones to transport them to the hospitals and have to stabilize them,” she said.

She’s hopeful, but noted there is a lot of work to do. While she believed reopening the hospital is critical, she is equally focused on finding the right community partner to secure the facility’s long-term success.

“We’ve seen hospital groups come in that struggle, that didn’t turn it around, and that even left our facilities in worse shape than they received them in,” McQueen added.

McQueen explained previous arrangements included basically allowing companies to operate the hospital rent-free, or for $1 dollar a year, if they maintained it. Despite these arrangements, the hospital sits in need of significant investment today.

The CEO of Rennova Health estimated half a million dollars worth of capital investment is needed, particularly in the building’s HVAC system.

Help could be on the way following the latest federal relief bill, which includes funding for state and local governments. Jellico is set to receive $580,000.

McQueen believes the money could help secure a quality hospital operating company, if the funds can be spent on improvements to the hospital.

‘”I think in the past we’ve been desperate. … Many times the hospital board would come to the council and say this is the only choice, so we would feel obligated to take it. I think if we could use the stimulus money to repair our hospital … we may not be in a position where we have to take what we can get, that we can truly take our time, research these companies, and get something that’s going to be great for years to come, not just for a few years.”

On the topic of federal solutions, McQueen also made a plea to state lawmakers about expanding Medicaid, which would extend health insurance to hundreds of thousands working poor Tennesseans.

“One of the greatest setbacks to rural healthcare has definitely been the state Legislatures’ reluctance to expand Medicaid without a doubt,” McQueen said. “Hospital reimbursements went down with the understanding that the states would expand Medicaid, so hospitals are getting less payment for indigent and uninsured patients.”

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