Thursday, April 18, 2019

Local investors buy bankrupt Mississippi hospital, plan to help it thrive with focus on 'niche' development

Batesville in Panola County (Wikipedia map)
Rural hospitals are closing at alarming rates: about one per month since 2010, 99 total as of March. Mississippi is no stranger to the trend, since half of its rural hospitals were deemed in danger of closing in 2019. Here's how local investors brought in bigger financial firepower to save one such hospital, Giacomo Bologna reports for the Jackson Clarion Ledger.

Panola Medical Center in Batesville went into bankruptcy in August 2018 after a string of problems: a medical-fraud scandal, a 2009 bankruptcy, and several owners. Nearly 400 people in the community of 7,000 would lose their jobs if the hospital closed, the town would have a hard time attracting new businesses, and locals could face greater injury or even death if a hospital wasn't close enough, Bologna reports.

Four investors partnered to buy the hospital for $2.5 million, less than a tenth of the $27.3 million it fetched about 15 years ago. "There were hiccups, but now, a month into ownership, they're not scrambling to keep the hospital open — they're making plans to grow it," Bologna reports.

One of the new owners is Quentin Whitwell, a lawyer and former Jackson city councilman and the chief operating officer for Alliance HealthCare System. The CEO of Panola's bankrupt owner, Curae Health, reached out to Whitwell, saying Panola had a lot of promise, since the main facility was fairly new (built in 2004), the location was convenient to the interstate, and the staff was dedicated. He said it was important for Panola to stay open because there are no other emergency rooms within 30 miles, Bologna reports.

Whitwell put together a roughly equal partnership with three other owners: his boss, Kenneth Williams, who owns Alliance; Vizion Health, a new company founded by health-care industry veterans; and Ashoke Mukherji, who owns Java Medical Group and who grew up in a rural Tennessee town where his father was sometimes the only surgeon, Bologna reports.

Whitwell acknowledges the challenges facing Panola and other hospitals, but hopes the owners' entrepreneurial mindset will help the hospital survive and thrive. They plan to begin offering physical therapy within the month, expanding the wound clinic, set up a telemedicine service, and increasing preventative services. Instead of trying to compete with bigger hospitals, Whitwell told Bologna they plan to focus on excellence in specific areas. "We can build niches," he said. "Building niches is critical to success."

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