Green River Star -

By David Martin

County rejects hospital bonds

Sixth penny tax use suggested


Memorial Hospital of Sweetwater County won’t be building their proposed ambulatory surgery center in the near future.

The Sweetwater County Commissioners voted unanimously against allowing the hospital to apply for revenue bonds it sought to pay for the center, which is estimated to cost approximately $50 million to build. The commissioners heard a presentation from hospital representatives two weeks ago regarding details about the bonds, but declined to act afterward in an attempt to give residents a chance to comment on the proposal.

Yesterday, the gallery was filled with hospital employees, administration and board members hoping to convince the commissioners of the center’s importance to both the hospital and Sweetwater County. Commissioner Wally Johnson said the commissioners have received a large amount of public input regarding the revenue bonds as well.

“Trust me, our phones have been ringing,” Johnson said.

Dr. Jeff Johnson, an orthopedic surgeon at the hospital, said the surgery center is a good project that would result in savings for patients due to the center’s focus on surgery.

“Those cost benefits are passed on to patients,” Dr. Johnson said.

Dr. Johnson said the surgery center would help create a more stable surgery schedule that wouldn’t get upended as a result of an emergency. This also allows the center to complete more surgeries with better efficiency according to Dr. Johnson.

Many of the doctors commenting told the commissioners the center is a recruiting tool for the hospital, most of whom said they came to Sweetwater County because of the hospital’s plan to build an ambulatory surgery center.

Dr. Sigsbee Duck, an otolaryngologist at the hospital, said the commissioners need to weigh fiscal responsibility with the hospital’s survival. The new, private hospital under construction in Rock Springs will “cherry pick” patients with health insurance, and will actively compete against MHSC. Commissioner John Kolb sees the competing hospital as a negative against MHSC, which he said would end its approximate $1 million in Medicare payments due to the hospital losing its sole community provider status.

The commissioners decided the center wasn’t a priority warranting revenue bond usage. The five-member group each spoke to their personal reasons for being against using revenue bonds. The main points the commissioners agreed on was the perceived risk the hospital was taking in undergoing the project, as well as the in the debt the construction would leave the hospital in. Commissioner Wally Johnson suggested the hospital pay off its remaining $25 million in debt from its previous renovation and approach voters for funding during the next sixth penny tax ballot initiative.

“(The tax) is a relatively painless way to expand that hospital,” Johnson said.

Johnson mentioned his experience in Lander while employed with U.S. Steel, saying a public hospital was built in part by his insistence that the company’s iron mine would remain in Lander. After the hospital was completed, Johnson said he was called to U.S. Steel’s headquarters in Pittsburg and was told the mine in Lander would close, which killed 540 jobs in the town. The hospital was soon sold to a private company after the mine’s closure.

“There’s no way I will take an action that jeopardizes the public hospital,” Johnson said. “I’ve done it once, I will not do it again.”

Commissioner Reid West, citing the concerns other commissioners had about the risk and debt associated with the bonds, also said he sees the cost of the center ballooning as additional features and offices were added to the plans. West, who serves as a liaison to the hospital board, said the center was originally estimated at approximately $4 million, but quickly increased to $19 million, then $30 million, and finally to the current $50 million price tag. Those increases are associated with the addition of office space on two additional floors.

Doctors speaking at the meeting said the new medical office building completed last year has already run out of space to grow.

“We’re kind of cramped in the new medical office building,” Dr. Samer Kattan, an OB/GYN said.

Regardless of his vote against the revenue bonds, he said he does believe the surgery center is a good idea, but too big a risk.

“I don’t want this hospital to fail,” West said.


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