Three local political officials told the board that governs McDuffie Regional Medical Center last week that the hospital must remain in Thomson, even if it's under new ownership, if the county is to continue to grow.
The McDuffie County Hospital Authority invited Thomson Mayor Kenneth Usry, county commission Chairman Charlie Newton and Dearing Mayor Sean Kelley to a meeting May 4 to share their views on a proposed offer from the University Health Care System to acquire the hospital.
For the second time in nine days, the board met behind closed doors without reaching a decision on University's offer. Authority Chairman Bill DoupÃ© said a decision could be made at the board's next regular meeting, which is scheduled for May 23.
Usry said he gets two or three calls a month from companies that are considering locating in McDuffie County.
"In order to attract industry, we've got to have a hospital here," he said.
Usry said he would prefer that the hospital remain in its present location. Published reports have said that University is considering building a new hospital close to Interstate 20 if its purchase offer is accepted.
Kelley said he also believes the hospital is vital to the community, but he appeared to be open to University's offer.
The Thomson hospital has experienced financial difficulties in the past two years. CEO Doug Keir says it is providing more indigent care and receiving reduced reimbursements from Medicare and Medicaid.
The hospital's in-patient unit, which was built in the early 1950s, also needs to be replaced. That would cost between $13 million and $15 million, Keir said.
Newton said that the county has $3 million set aside for hospital construction, and in a later telephone interview he said the hospital has about another $3 million. "But that only gets you halfway there," he said.
He said McDuffie Regional also has to overcome the stigma of being a "Band-Aid" hospital because for years it offered only inpatient care. It has added outpatient and other services in recent years, but the stigma remains, he said.
Usry said the hospital's financial difficulties mirror to some degree those of the community.
The county's population grew by 3 percent, from 21,231 to 21,875, between 2000 and 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Until two years ago, Usry said, "we were beginning to feel the effects of Columbia County coming to us," he said, just as Columbia County had experienced growth from Richmond County.
"We hit a brick wall," he said, adding, "I don't think we're out of this downturn cycle."