Pressure on county commissioners to decide the future of Weems Memorial Hospital intensified this past week, with opposing sides hardening their stances as a deadline looms on following through on a low-interest federal loan intended to finance an expansion of the existing Apalachicola facility.
The week began with a surprise announcement Feb. 12 that a special meeting would be held Friday afternoon, just two days later, to discuss whether the county wished to proceed with a $10 million loan, obligated to the county for building the hospital by the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development in June 2015.
"But there has been no expressed interest in proceeding with the project since a March 12, 2019 conference call," County Coordinator Michael Morón wrote in the report he prepared for the meeting.
Angered at just 48 hours of public notice, many in the audience on Friday carried signs reading "Sacred Heart Commits Money (and) Doctors; Alliant Commits No Money, No Doctors."
Morón opened by telling commissioners the USDA’s Marianna office had set a March 12 deadline for either proceeding with the loan, or de-obligating the funds, and that the county would have to decide whether to obtain a GMP (Guaranteed Maximum Price) and authorize him to work with project architect Joe Bynum, or they could have County Attorney Michael Shuler submit a request to USDA to de-obligate.
Most, but not all, the speakers voiced opposition to moving forward with expanding Weems, many in the form of previously prepared emails read by someone in attendance.
Former Carrabelle Mayor Mel Kelly opened by accusing county officials of "subterfuge and chicanery" by scheduling a daytime meeting, on short notice, on the future of the hospital project. "With a regularly scheduled commission meeting in four days, what is the need and urgency for this special meeting?" she asked.
"You have a choice of a hands-on, standalone emergency room fully staffed and equipped by an award winning hospital organization and on the other hand, a consultation plan with pledges and promised goals together with TMH which has not proven to be a real partner after many years of supposed cooperation," Kelly said.
"You (have) failed to make a decision for those who need modern, competent health services by refusing to provide any real leadership for your patients
"What kind of services will Alliant bring besides bookkeeping?" she asked. "You have bookkeepers; you need treatment professionals. To move forward with this hospital loan agreement now, for the mediocre $10 million which will not fully build, nor will it equip anything but a skeletal facility is an insult to all those who voted for you, who trusted you, and who wanted to know you would do the right thing for their healthcare at this pivotal time."
Kelly urged the county to revamp its loan request, and use it to build the standalone emergency room. "Don’t try to build a hospital which will have less than one patient per night, by Weems’ own reporting, which will have old equipment and which will require taxpayer to subsidize it to eternity," she said.
St. George Island’s Steve Kirschenbaum noted the large number of patients, including his wife, who have had to be airlifted out of the county. "We need hospital professionals running this hospital," he said. "This $10 million will pay for nothing, just giving a foothold to go to the next step. We need Sacred Heart in this town."
Speaking on behalf of the Concerned Citizens of Franklin County, Allan Feifer said "other people's money has propped up Weems for many years. The health care trust fund has allowed $20 million to prop up a hospital where there are too many bad outcomes."
Eastpoint’s Tony Partington praised the work of Weems on behalf of his family members, and noted he had worked there. "Much has happened and changed in healthcare since 1959 when Weems first opened its doors," he said. "That worked well, (but) the expertise of the time has been improved and replaced with ‘state of the art’ technology.
"The residents and visitors of Franklin County do need and do deserve quality healthcare. In the world as it is today, that simply cannot be realized or accomplished through a private rural hospital that would be a decade’s long financial burden to us and our children," he said.
In a letter from Carrabelle’s Tim Sullivan, read by Patrick Leach, the subject of geography was first introduced. After criticizing the county for not following protocol for its hastily scheduled meeting, Sullivan wrote that no decision should be made without first settling where any hospital or ER facility would be located.
"One point made at the public workshop, given by the Texas A&M team, was the importance of having a healthcare facility within 30 minutes of a critical care need," he wrote, urging the county to delay a decision until the Texas A&M University group completes its report in the fall.
"This team will answer a lot of the financial and logistical questions if given the opportunity," Sullivan wrote.
Apalachicola Mayor Kevin Begos said the county needs to keep the Weems project alive, and to stand by the commitment made by voters 12 years ago for a replacement facility in the city.
"The whole notion that Sacred Heart is the magic solution, it’s ridiculous. It’s a complex subject," he said.
"Let’s not engage in a system of musical chairs," he said, noting that the future may call for clinics to be built in Eastpoint and even St. George Island. "The city commission of Apalachicola feels we need to keep a hospital or some facility here in Apalachicola,"
Alligator Point’s Ben Houston asked that a hospital be centrally located in Franklin County. "The distance to another hospital is a major concern for us," he said, noting that bridge closure poses a major problem for parts of the county to access Weems. "Not enough thought has gone to access of medical services.
Wanda Luckey-Johnson, on the board of the Lanark Village Association, said the limited hours of the Weems East clinic in Carrabelle are a problem as well. "You’re not allowed to have an emergency on the weekends," she said. "We need at the minimum an emergency care facility, and we’re going to be paying for it for a very long time."
In a letter from Jim Warner, of St. George Island, he said attention must be paid on whether the health care business model for Weems would financially support a health care center. He said a detailed polling of county residents, as to where they get their health care, is needed to support any business model before any decision on construction.
Apalachicola’s Diane Brewer called for the county to abandon the process for the USDA loan, and Eastpoint’s Mike Thornburg asked that a referendum be held regarding health care.
"Give up the obligation for funding for a proposal that is way short of being an actual proposal," said Brewer. "This is a fork in the road. Get out of the health care business and leave it to the professionals.
Thornburg said the matter should placed on the upcoming general election ballot. "Let the voters decide," he said. "This is a touchy issue how we want to do it."
Eastpoint resident Mary Ann McGuire urged commissioners not to obligate tax dollars to rebuilding Weems. "Weems has been hemorrhaging money and survived only with infusions of cash from the county," she said. "A new building will not solve the financial problems of Weems, and will not provide any new health care resources."
Debra Storck, from Eastpoint, gave Weems her vote of support. "The biggest fabrication I hear is that Sacred Heart is going to build us an ER. That is our taxes that are going to do that," she said.
"Why haven’t they brought doctors to admit to our facility?" Storck asked. "With Sacred Heart we will lose 60 jobs at the hospital, and citizens will be leaving this county. We know mortality will go up.
"It makes no sense to give our taxpayer dollars to another county and give us less than we have now," she said. "I think is about time the constituents who voted for it get what they asked for."
The meeting also heard from Gail Riegelmayer and Donna Butterfield, both leaders in the advocacy of going with Sacred Heart’s proposal, as well as retired physician Richard Mitsak, who now lives on St. George Island.
"Don’t vote for a very narrow vested interest," he said. "I would ask you two questions - How do you want to sleep at night, do you want to go to bed knowing you have represented all of the county? And when you meet your maker, did you do your duty?"
After a short discussion, commissioners unanimously agreed to continue the process of pursuing the USDAS loan. "If we de-obligate these funds with a very low interest rate, how are we going to build any building?" said Commissioner Smokey Parrish, noting that both proposals call for the county funding any new construction.
Morón told commissioners Tuesday morning that Bynum will charge only for making new additions to the already prepared loan application.
Also on Tuesday, commissioners heard a strong endorsement, from a contingent of clergy who serve the Hill neighborhood, and from the H’COLA civic organization, for keeping Weems a full-service hospital in Apalachicola.
"Weems is a precise and secure medical safe haven for our community," said Pastor Barry Hand. "It has been an advantage to those who are financially challenged, and our elderly community.
"You made an agreement with city of Apalachicola to construct a new hospital facility. The keeping of your word and agreement will be honorable to your citizens," he said. "The voters of Franklin County gave their approval when it was put to a vote."
Tami Ray-Hutchinson, speaking on behalf of H’COLA (Hillside Coalition of Laborers for Apalachicola) said the group is in full support of Weems remaining here in Apalachicola.
"It would be our population that would suffer the greatest loss," she said. "Some don’t have access to transportation, and a lot live below the poverty level. It is crucial that we keep Weems a viable full service hospital here in Apalachicola."
The commission also heard a blistering attack from Kelly on remarks made by Commissioner William Massey, who said Friday that Sacred Heart had plans to cut back the hours of the Carrabelle clinic.
"You owe the people of Carrabelle who you represent a heartfelt and sincere apology," she said. "if you had been paying attention, (you would know) Sacred Heart plans to keep the Carrabelle clinic open five-and-one-half days a week as it is now, and it will be staffed by ARNPs. Your erroneous pontification did a great disservice."