A public discussion about McDuffie Regional Medical Center's future drew 32 residents to the Thomson-McDuffie Government Center on Monday.
Many of the comments voiced in the one-hour session called for the governing body to keep the hospital operating on the city's west side.
The hospital board has received an offer from University Medical Center in Augusta to purchase the hospital. That offer has been on the table for about a year.
Hospital authority chairman Bill Doupé told the group gathered Monday that the options have been studied carefully, and that he expects a resolution within 60 days. Should the board decide to sell the hospital, the transition would be subject to scrutiny from the Georgia attorney general's office. That process would include a public hearing.
Doupé said the board might hold more public discussions but did not commit to that plan.
Monday's meeting was not a formal hearing. It was convened by Thomson businessman Delmar B. "Brink" Bradshaw. He told The McDuffie Mirror that he had invited hospital board members and ex-officio members.
County Commission Chairman Charlie Newton said he is not part of the negotiations but understands the hospital's financial condition and why the board is considering new management arrangements.
He said the older, in-patient portion of the hospital is 50 years old and is nearing the end of its useful life. When reminded that the brick structure itself seems sturdy, he said systems essential to the building's operation need to be replaced. Those include the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system, the electrical network and the oxygen supply system.
"If we are going to continue there, that hospital is going to have to be torn down and replaced," he said. He estimated the demolition cost alone at a million dollars.
Newton said if University builds a new hospital, construction costs will not come from taxation. "They're not asking for money for construction," he said.
He said University has agreed to keep the current hospital location functioning in some medical capacity. "If they shut it down, we'll have an ugly, empty box on the main thoroughfare," he said.
Newton said some members of the community cannot insist on a local hospital on one hand, and then take their own medical business to Augusta.
Hospital administrator Doug Keir said the building is past its useful life and cannot serve as a hospital another five years.
Keir said the hospital's financial fight has been complicated by frequent changes in legislation. He said Georgia now taxes hospital beds instead of taxing cigarettes. That charge costs the hospital $52,000 every quarter, he said.
He said the hospital has no long-term debt but it is drawing on its reserves. The loss is about $1 million to $1.2 million a year, he said. Keir said the hospital has enough reserves to operate 87 days. Two years ago. the hospital had 131 days' reserves, he said.
Doupé said the initial offer from University was received last August. "I think we're close to making a firm up-or-down decision," he said. He repeated that the hospital board has been firm on the need to continue a medical use for the present facility.
"Within 60 days we'll know what we're doing," Doupé said.
McDuffie County Fire/Rescue Chief Bruce Tanner was asked to comment on the suggested need for an emergency room closer to I-20. He said even with six fire stations in the county system, some differences in response time are inevitable. He said moving the emergency room will not change that problem. "You're really not going to have a serious effect on response time with one location," he said. Tanner said moving the ER would make one area's response time longer while "giving another person a gift."
Doupé said some change seems inevitable, and the hospital should negotiate while it has reserves and more options to explore. "We don't want to be staring down the barrel of a financial crisis before we make a decision on this," he said.