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story.lead_photo.caption A map showing the location of De Queen.

Sevier County voters Tuesday approved a 1% sales tax and a bond issue to support the construction of a hospital, months after a troubled health care facility in De Queen was forced to close.

De Queen Medical Center closed in May after financial mismanagement by Missouri-based operator EmpowerHMS, as demonstrated through months of late payrolls, unpaid bills and delinquent property taxes.

The hospital was the first to close in Arkansas in several years, and health care observers worried that it would portend a wave of rural hospital closures in the state. Since 2010, 118 such facilities have closed nationwide.

Now, county voters have given the go-ahead in a plan to raise money through county sales and use taxes to build a hospital outside De Queen. The hospital is projected to open its emergency department in the summer of 2021.

Tuesday's vote was a special election dealing with two hospital-related measures.

According to the county clerk's office, unofficial results on a proposed 1% sales and use tax to construct and furnish a hospital were:

For 1,594

Against 308

The vote on a $24,250,000 bond issue to finance the hospital's construction was:

For 1,594

Against 299

The bonds will be repaid through funds raised by the tax, which goes into effect Jan. 1.

As of Wednesday morning, about 84% of votes had been tabulated, the clerk's office said. Roughly 29% of county voters cast ballots.

The approvals begin a new chapter for the county, where beginning last year the prospect of its only hospital closing had provoked a public outcry.

"This has been a long road ... [but] people know we have to have good health care, close to home," said Steve Cole, chairman of the county's rural development authority and chancellor at the Cossatot Community College of the University of Arkansas.

Cole is part of an informal group that spearheaded efforts to save the old hospital. As the extent of its parent company's financial distress became clear, the group later changed its focus to supporting a new, locally controlled provider.

The proposed site for the new hospital is just north of De Queen on U.S. 71, a few miles from the old hospital on West Collin Raye Drive.

The hospital is tentatively expected to have 12 beds and an emergency department, though its specific service lines haven't been determined, said Dr. Jason Lofton, a De Queen physician who has been involved in organizing the hospital matter.

"People realize the need for, especially, emergency services," particularly for conditions that need to be stabilized like heart attack and stroke, he said. "I think a lot of people think about kids and grandparents."

In advance of the election, community leaders hosted several public forums around the county so voters could ask questions about the proposed hospital, the sales tax and the bond issue.

Some residents expressed reservations about raising the sales-tax rate, which will be among the highest in the state, Sevier County economic development director Lisa Taylor said.

The county sales-tax rate currently is 8.625%, which consists of the state's 6.5% and the county's 2.125%. De Queen additionally has a 1% sales tax.

Taylor said she thought that personal health-care stories cemented public opinion in favor of the hospital measures. At one meeting, City Council Member Jeff Holcombe provided a moving account about his son, who is allergic to peanuts.

"Minutes matter, when you're going into anaphylactic shock," she said.

There also were some concerns about the proposed hospital's location, which is outside the city limits. Officials said that site was chosen so the facility can be designated as a critical access hospital.

The critical access hospital license confers favorable reimbursement rates and access to other resources on rural hospitals that area at least 35 miles away from another provider, or 15 miles in rough terrain.

Cole didn't expect the new location to overwhelmingly change access to care, pointing out that the site is around seven minutes from the Pilgrim's Pride poultry processing plant, which has about 1,000 employees.

After Tuesday's election results, Taylor said community leaders were "anxious to get going" on the project. Most county residents are currently traveling to Nashville -- about 40 minutes away -- for hospital services.

Next steps include the appointment of a seven-member governing board through the Sevier County Quorum Court and a bond sale, which Cole said may happen in December.

While voters approved the issuance of more than $24 million in revenue bonds, the exact amount depends on final architectural plans.

When built, the hospital will join six in the state that are under county control, according to materials published by the Arkansas Hospital Association. Several others have local boards, and 26 receive some form of tax support.

Taylor anticipates the new hospital creating about 100 jobs, as well as spurring secondary economic effects as workers and patients spend money in the area.

EmpowerHMS, the for-profit company that had run De Queen Medical Center, has largely collapsed in recent months, according to news reports. A phone number for the company's main office has been disconnected.

Once the operator of more than a dozen rural hospitals in Kansas, Oklahoma, Tennessee, North Carolina and other states, many of its properties have closed or changed ownership.

The De Queen hospital, which a circuit judge placed under the control of a receiver on March 28, was the company's only property in Arkansas.

After the new hospital is built, Mena Regional Health System staff members have agreed to work in its emergency department to expedite its opening, Cole said. Some hospital systems also have expressed interest in partnerships, he said.

Lofton, who used to make rounds caring for his patients in the old hospital, says he's looking forward to the new facility.

"I just want to see a place that I can go and know what's going on with the patients," he said.

Metro on 10/10/2019

Print Headline: Voters OK tax for county hospital

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