Hospital may close in 1 year

Despite opposition from every government agency in Gilmer County, closure of North Georgia Medical Center and its operating room is imminent.

At a special called meeting last Monday of the Gilmer County Board of Commissioners, Chairman Charlie Paris said, despite letters of opposition to closing the hospital, the best county residents can hope for it to have the emergency operating room open for one year.

“It’s a gamble whether we oppose this or not. One thing is certain, the hospital will be closing at some point. We will probably have an emergency room for one year, maybe two, but I don’t see it going beyond that,” Paris told the audience of some 20 concerned residents.

“The situation hasn’t changed. The reason for them losing money is still going to be there, even if the emergency room is upgraded or improved. The huge losses are coming from indigent care and that’s not going to stop,” he added.

The medical center announced last week it had reached an agreement with Piedmont Mountainside Hospital in Jasper for Piedmont to take over operation of the Ellijay location.

If the agreement is approved by the state medical office, the local hospital would be the only freestanding emergency room in the state.

Joining the county commissioners, the cities of Ellijay and East Ellijay, the Gilmer County Board of Education and Joint Development Authority all approved letters opposing the closure.

The Gilmer Nursing Home will not be affected by the change, according to Dr. Tom Ross, director of the nursing home, and local operating physician.

He pointed out the agreement between Piedmont and Sunlink does not affect the nursing home facility. 

He said he met with the chief operating officer of Piedmont Hospital systems, Greg Hurst, who said they would keep the operating room open for one year and then year by year after that.

“They have no intention of keeping it open,” he said.

Ross also said he had met with most of the current physicians in the county and only two of them intended to remain under the current conditions and two have already left.

Ross said he formerly worked for Piedmont but, “Piedmont has a reputation of not being physician-friendly. That’s why the doctors expressed disinterest in working for Piedmont.”

Post 1 Commissioner Dallas Miller said part of the problem is the medical system in this county, and country, that has the wrong priorities.

“We spend more on animal health in the county than we do people health. It’s a priority problem and we haven’t given health care the priority it needs. We spend more on our chickens than we do the families who raise them,” he said.

Denise Ray, chief operating officer of Piedmont Mountainside, noted 27 percent of patients treated at Piedmont Mountainside come from Gilmer County.

“There’s not enough population to support two hospitals,” she said

Dave Meadows told the commissioners, ”The county needs a good quality, top-notch hospital. People in this county deserve a good quality, full-service hospital.”

Martha Williamson took another view. 

“I don’t agree the good people of Gilmer County need a hospital. They haven’t been using it because most go to Jasper. I, myself, go south,” she said.

Meadows countered, “Part of the problem is the rumors going around. ‘Oooh, I wouldn’t go there.’ I’ve been in this hospital several times and never had any problems and got good service. I don’t know why people don’t give this hospital a chance.”

Ray explained the agreement to take over the hospital from Sunlink is for five years, however, the medical offices on Industrial Way will be operated for 10 years. 

“Our intention is to have services available for Gilmer County. That’s our purpose,” she said.

Ray added Piedmont plans to hire more physicians to staff the auxiliary offices to offer more services.

Katie Baxter, the interim head of radiology at the hospital, said the current nursing staff is a skeleton crew.

“We’ve lost 33 employees in the past six months,” she said.

The commissioners all agreed they needed more time to study the situation to see if another solution could be found.

“We’re not trying to stop it in its tracks. What we’re trying to do, instead of a 30-day period, most of which has already passed before we knew about it, is maybe get a 90-day period to find some alternative,” Paris said.

Times Courier

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Ellijay, GA. 30540

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