On the eve of a much-anticipated visit by Tallahassee Memorial Hospital CEO Mark O’Bryant at a special meeting Wednesday morning of the county commission, a high-profile note of support for Sacred Heart’s proposal was voiced to commissioners at their regular meeting Tuesday morning.

Carrabelle Mayor Brenda La Paz urged commissioners to make sure any future emergency facility is “more suitably positioned in a central location,” a key aspect of what Sacred Heart has said they would support, in the event the county commissioners decide to do so.

“I bring you all a message from the Carrabelle city commission regarding the Weems Hospital dilemma you continue to face each and every day,” said La Paz, at the outset of her prepared remarks.

“Numerous people in the Carrabelle community, including the Carrabelle city commission, have followed along and reviewed both offers to your board, being that from TMH/Alliant which includes construction of a new hospital in Apalachicola, versus the offer from Sacred Heart with the concept of an emergency facility more centrally located in Franklin County to better accommodate all those who live and visit in Franklin County. This versus a facility being located to the extreme east end or the extreme west end of our county,” she said.

“The Carrabelle city commission supports a medical facility that would be (more) conducive to all those who find themselves in need of healthcare,” said La Paz. “This is not an east/west issue; this is from a logical and realistic point of view. The Carrabelle city commission would like to see all the residents of Franklin County have adequate, swift, and safe access to healthcare that is logistically and logically located in the center of our county.”

The mayor went on to say that she has “been requested by multiple citizens from the Carrabelle community to deliver a second message (that) they overwhelmingly prefer a centrally-located facility which again is easily accessible, and that the facility be managed by Sacred Heart because of the services offered, the central location offered, and the overall end cost to the citizens and taxpayers.”

La Paz pushed the commissioners for quick action, using the city’s own experience in constructing a new City Hall as an example.

“After the Carrabelle commission kicked the can down the road four years on a decision of whether to construct new, or move into a used, building, or to rehab the current location, in the end construction of a new 5,300-square-foot building cost $250,000 more than it would have cost when originally introduced to the commission four years earlier,” she said.

“Now we can only imagine what the cost difference is on a new full-blown hospital today compared to back in the 2008-2010 era,” said La Paz.

The mayor also made reference to the interlocal agreements, hammered out 12 years ago, that allow for the collection of sales tax monies for the health care trust fund in each of the county’s two cities.

“Taking into consideration the (interlocal agreements), the ballot wording, and the ordinance wording, I say perhaps the possibility of a referendum might be taken under consideration,” said La Paz. “It has been well-noted that since the 2008 referendum, the modern design of medical facilities and the mode of delivery of medical services have changed drastically.”

The mayor closed by wishing the commissioners “all the best with your decision-making, understanding the stress, anguish, and heartache.

“I also wish that in your decision-making, you keep in mind all the citizens, youngsters, and visitors of Franklin County who, just like those on the western end, get sick, have accidents, are handicapped, are elderly, and require assistive transportation,” she said. “All should have equal access to health care.”

Before finishing her remarks, the mayor extended an invitation to commissioners to conduct one or two of their board meetings each year at Carrabelle City Hall. “In the past your board had a full house when holding meetings in Carrabelle,” said La Paz. “I do hope the drive from Apalachicola to Carrabelle is not holding you all back from bringing the government to the people, as was done in the past.”

The mayor’s remarks were met by an attentive silence from commissioners, with the exception of Chairman Noah Lockley, who offered a thinly-veiled criticism.

“I think the city should attend to city business, the state should attend to state business and the county should attend to county business,” he said.

Also in the public comment section at the outset of the meeting, Allan Feifer, president of the Concerned Citizens of Franklin County, a group solidly in favor of Sacred Heart’s proposal, spoke out.

After passing out a sheet containing numbers provided by Weems of their financials for the second half of 2019, Feifer said the hospital has misrepresented its financial standing, through accounting irregularities that paint a rosier picture than is actually the case.

He said the hospital has applied the county commission’s forgiveness of a $690,000 loan debt entirely to Sept. 2019 subsidies, as opposed to going back over the decade-old debt and applying the forgiveness, which county commissioners unanimously approved last year, to the time frame for which the loan was originally applied.

By applying it to Sept. 2019, Weems showed a roughly $750,000 profit in September, far more than the typical monthly numbers, which have ranged from a $65,000 loss to a $200,000 profit.

“They made claims about being profitable when they are not,” Feifer said.

In addition, he accused the hospital of “falsely tripling” new patient revenues in July 2019, to about $1.6 million, much more than the $350,000 to $620,000 usually seen each month in such revenues.

Later in the meeting, during the report of County Coordinator Michael Morón, commissioners unanimously approved an advance of $150,000 from the health care trust fund, to cover the anticipated reimbursement of revenue losses from Hurricane Michael.

He said hospital operations suffered about $1.1 million in revenue loss due to the hurricane, and that the Florida Department of Emergency Management has approved reimbursing Weems about $226,000 of the $1.1 million, which he said should be transmitted to the county later this month.

“To date, Weems has carried that loss and along with any revenue loss due to the new roof installation, but has not received any advances from the health care trust fund for operation or payroll,” Morón said. “When the funds are received later this month, the county will transfer the $150,000 back to the health care trust fund and forward the remaining $76,000 to Weems.”

Commissioners also unanimously approved the receipt of two reimbursable grants to Weems through the Big Bend Health Care Coalition. One is for $8,000 to be used to purchase simulation equipment to train emergency management staff, and the other for $10,000 to purchase equipment to setup a coordination and evaluation center at Weems that will be used during simulations and disaster situations.

In response to a question from Commissioner Smokey Parrish, Nikol Tschaepe, Weems plant operation director, said the initial expenditures will be made from the health care trust fund, and that the reimbursements to the trust fund should be completed within a month or so. These grants do not require any match.