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County calls to replace closed hospital in west Arkansas

Sevier County judge to seek bonds, sales tax to fund new facility by Emily Walkenhorst | May 4, 2019 at 2:36 a.m.
FILE - A hallway in the De Queen Medical Center shows no sign of activity, with many doors shut tight and the cafeteria closed.

The defunct hospital in De Queen is locked up and closed for good, Sevier County leaders said this week.

Leaders will begin planning to build a new hospital from the ground up after months of attempting to rescue the troubled De Queen Medical Center, which they ultimately decided had too many liens and judgments against it to revive.

Greg Ray, county judge of Sevier County, said the fastest way to get a new hospital is to issue bonds and create a new sales tax to fund it.

He plans to meet with the county legal team and representatives with Stephens Group, which issues the bonds, to determine the best way forward.

Ray said he expects to ask the Quorum Court on May 13 to consider the bonds and sales tax, which justices of the peace would have to approve sending to voters for an election.

The announcement marked a fast turnaround after monthslong efforts by Ray and other county and city leaders to take over the hospital.

Ray said officials had signed a tentative agreement Monday with De Queen Medical Center owner EmpowerHMS, of Missouri, to do so. It fell through within a day, and locks were placed on the hospital's doors. Ray and others announced their new plan Thursday.

The hospital had dozens of liens and numerous other judgments on accounts receivable, said Steve Cole, Sevier County Rural Development Authority chairman. The authority has been involved in trying to save the De Queen Medical Center.

He couldn't recall how many judgments.

"We actually quit counting at 13," he said.

The hospital owed $117,000 in back real estate and property taxes, and EmpowerHMS hospitals owe nearly $2 million across seven states, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette found in January.

In March, a judge appointed former hospital Director of Nursing Rachel Matheson as the hospital's receiver, in charge of its finances.

De Queen Medical Center, which stopped seeing patients in February, had 22 beds and eight emergency room bays. The hospital stopped seeing patients after months in which workers alleged they were not being paid.

That left Sevier County residents, a steady population of about 17,000, without a hospital.

The closest hospital is in Nashville, about 35 minutes away -- what Cole estimated to be about a 45-minute door-to-door ambulance ride.

Ray expects a new hospital to have 10 beds, maximum, as well as emergency rooms.

"It would be the basic function of a regular hospital," he said. "It would just be smaller."

It would remain a "critical access" hospital, but the "micro hospital" size is more feasible, he said.

A "critical access hospital" refers to small hospitals in rural areas that are otherwise far from emergency care. Hospitals are designated as such by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Ray said he believes a half-percent sales tax would raise about $1 million annually, and a 1 percent sales tax would raise about $2 million annually.

Sevier County has a sales and use tax rate of 2.125%, according to the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration -- among the two dozen highest county rates in the state. The state's sales and use tax is 6.5%, and De Queen's sales and use tax is 1%.

Ray said he doesn't know if the size of the De Queen Medical Center contributed to financial issues.

"I don't know if it was too large or if the owner just didn't know how to run it, because there is a lot of debt out there, I know that," Ray said.

Cole was less committed to a hospital size this early in the planning process. He said he wanted to explore many funding options and for voters to approve funds for "an exemplary hospital that provides perfect health care for our people."

The community could apply for a U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development grant that is meant for critical access hospitals, but Ray said that would take much longer than issuing bonds and voting on an accompanying sales tax.

One thing Cole said he won't support is not having a hospital at all. Having a hospital is important for public safety, public health and local economic development, he said.

"It's not 'nice to have,' it's not 'should have,'" Cole said. "We must have a hospital in Sevier County."

Information for this article was contributed by Kat Stromquist of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

State Desk on 05/04/2019

Print Headline: County calls to replace closed hospital in west Arkansas


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