How Chilton County saved its hospital

Special Reports

CLANTON, Ala. (WIAT) – The people of Chilton County did something pretty unheard of in order to keep a hospital in their community: they voted a tax on themselves. But would it work for other hospitals in rural areas?

In 2012, members of the Chilton County Hospital Board say they became aware that the current hospital’s out-of-state owners and operators had gotten into bad shape financially, and were not paying the bills.  “During that period of time, we started looking at getting another hospital going because the current hospital was about to close and the state health department pulled the license,” explained Sibley Reynolds, Secretary of the (now) Chilton County Healthcare Authority.  “We had a CON at this old building, but it was going to vaporize in 12 months after the hospital stopped operation.”

Reynolds said the board started looking into options since it was their main focus to keep a hospital in Chilton County. One:  they could buy the old building and try to modernize it—but that would take an estimated $11 million. Or, two, they could start over, clean slate.  Ultimately, they went with the clean slate option, which actually did leave the area without a hospital for around five years.

During that time, Chilton County became the most populous county in the state without a hospital. But through research, board members found that they could afford to sustain a hospital—and keep bodies in beds—so long as the people of Chilton County decided to stay home when it came to their medical care.  “We had to come up with a funding source,” Reynolds said.  “We had to meet with legislators.  We got an agreement for a one-cent sales tax.  We did some marketing as far as promoting that one-cent sales tax.”

The board approached Sen. Cam Ward about legislation concerning a one-cent sales tax. Polling research had shown that 8 out of 10 Chilton County residents were likely to vote in favor of it. When the vote actually happened, 79.6% did.

It took an agonizing amount of time, but in October, the hospital will be celebrating it’s 3rd year anniversary.  Reynolds says the partnership that the board developed with St Vincent’s should be taught in college courses—that’s how pleased he is with the job they are doing. The partnership came about around the time of the Joplin, Missouri tornadoes.  Reynolds says the conversation started because they began to worry about how a similar, catastrophic situation would pan out at the old hospital.

According to hospital Administrator Suzannah Campbell, St. Vincents Chilton is now one of just two in the state that has a  Five Star designation for patient experience.

CBS 42 took a tour of the facility which sees around 20,000 patients through the emergency department, alone, each year. “We keep adding services,” Campbell said.” And that’s been the goal all along:  to continue to add and grow so that all of the community members can stay here.”  The new hospital has expanded surgical service offerings from what was in place with the old facility. To name a couple of the features: there is a full-service diagnostic suite, full-service emergency department, full-service lab, inpatient physical therapy, an outpatient sleep center—and more.  There are also 180 associates employed at the hospital; 140 of those employees are full-time.

In the not so distant future, the hospital hopes to add a Medical Office Building adjacent to the hospital. They also hope to eventually get into the business of delivering babies and ‘healing hearts’. 

“Our [one-cent sales tax] generates more money than is needed, and we have those extra funds to be used to build that MOB,” said Reynolds.  According to the board, the one-cent sales tax will run until the hospital is paid for–plus a period of time to provide cushion money for maintenance costs.

So we wanted to know: could other areas learn from Chilton County’s willingness to take pride and ownership of their own healthcare and fork over more cash to make it happen? The answer may be a bit complicated. 

Afterall—as Reynolds explains, Chilton County was the MOST populous county in the state without a hospital at the time. He thinks some other rural areas might not have the sales tax to support building a hospital like Chilton County did. However, Reynolds thinks that it WOULD be possible to do something smaller—say, a smaller facility that acts as a feeder to another hospital.


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