Judge rules in favor of new hospital

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By Tia Lynn Ivey

managing editor

It looks as though the multimillion-dollar replacement hospital project is back on track this week after the Morgan Memorial Hospital Authority (MMHA) scored a major court victory this past Friday. The Morgan County Superior Court ruled in favor MMHA, approving the hospital’s bond validation request, necessary to move forward with the construction of a $35 million replacement hospital, and striking down the complaints filed by John Anton, which sought to halt the project from proceeding any further.

“The Court overrules Intervenor Anton’s objection that the Intergovernmental Agreement was not validly approved because it was approved by a legally binding vote of the Board of Commissioners of Morgan County;” wrote Judge Allison Burleson in her final judgment. “The Court overrules Intervenor Anton’s objection that the Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) is unconstitutional because the Intergovernmental Contracts Clause expressly permits it;” and “The Court overrules any and all other objections as they are without merit.”

According to Judge Burleson, Morgan County government “legally authorized” the Intergovernmental Agreement that stipulates a $1 million annual to Morgan Memorial Hospital (MMH) for the next 25 years and that the MMHA took “all proper and necessary steps to authorize the issuance of the Construction Notes and the USDA Notes.”

MMHA official are relieved over the ruling and ready to move forward with the construction of the new replacement hospital.

“While it is very unfortunate that opposition caused a delay in the project, we are pleased with the outcome and are grateful that Judge Burleson issued a ruling in such a timely manner,” said Terry Evans, Hospital Authority chair. “It is our hope that Mr. Anton will respect Judge Burleson’s decision and not prolong litigation.”

“Countless hours have been invested in this project over the course of several years with extreme attention to detail,” said Ken Lewis, M.D., emeritus member of the Hospital Authority. “The opposition was given the chance to be heard, the court has ruled, and now I hope and pray that we can all come together and move forward with providing for the future healthcare needs of the citizens of our county.”

Stephen Morris, attorney for John Anton, is discouraged by the ruling, but not convinced of defeat just yet.

“We are disappointed with the judge’s ruling,” said Morris. “Of course we respect her ruling, but we respectfully disagree with it.”

According to Morris, Anton has 30 days from the ruling to file an appeal. “Nothing has been decided yet, but we are currently evaluating all of our options.”

Anton’s case alleged that the IGA between MMHA and the county is invalid for two reasons: that the Morgan County Board of Commissioners (BOC) did not have a true majority when they voted 2-1 to up MMHA’s funding to $1 million per year for the next 25 years and that “constitutionally” the county has no legal authority to enter into an IGA with the hospital in the first place. Although Judge Burleson was not persuaded by this argument, Morris hasn’t ruled out the possibility of taking the case to a higher court through appeals.

“An appeal is definitely an option, though we haven’t decided on that by any means. There are some other options available, but I am not comfortable commenting on the details of those just yet.”

Hospital officials are concerned with the ramifications an appeal process could pose for MMH, should Anton decide to continue a legal battle in a higher court. According to Chief of Staff and Hospital Authority Member Dan Zant, M.D., an appeal of the court’s order would cause delays that come with a heavy price, putting local healthcare and local lives at risk.

“Simply stated, you cannot put a monetary value on human life,” said Zant. “If we do not build a new hospital, which we have proven is needed and feasible, we are sending the message that the lives of our local citizens are not worth the expense of a new facility.”

Hospital officials believe Anton’s opposition is fruitless, arguing that even if he were successful in stopping the construction of a new hospital, the county would continue to fund MMH all the same.  Evans said the county’s support of the hospital through its annual $1 million subsidy would still be needed regardless of whether a new hospital is constructed. Those funds would support operations in its current location or, in the event of MMH’s closure, fund ambulance transportation to other hospitals.

“That money will either go to trying to maintain an aging, outdated hospital that opened its doors when Eisenhower was president, or it will be invested in a new facility that will serve us for generations to come. Obviously, the return on the investment is far greater with a new facility,” he says. “You can’t put a price on people’s lives and that’s ultimately what is at stake here.”

Hospital officials also stressed that the responsibility for the $35 million loan from the USDA falls on MMHA alone, and not the Morgan County government. Ralph Castillo, CEO of MMH, pointed to Judge Burleson’s words in the final ruling as evidence.

“Judge Burleson’s ruling clearly states that neither the construction notes nor the USDA notes will directly, indirectly or contingently obligate the State or any of its political subdivisions to levy or pledge any form of taxation for the payment of the certificates,” said Castillo. “Furthermore she concludes that the project and its funding mechanisms are sound, feasible, and reasonable.”

Hospital officials are hoping for smooth sailing from here on out, but are prepared to continue fighting for the new replacement hospital. In a press release from the MMHA, the authority outlined the process they have undergone to this point and why they believe a new hospital is warranted in the county. 

“MMH received approval on a $35 million USDA loan to construct a replacement hospital facility in December 2016 and secured a historically low interest rate of 2.375 percent. The approval was thought to be one of the final hurdles for the project following a year of milestones that included donation of land, a successful fundraising campaign and the signing of a collaboration agreement with Piedmont Athens Regional, which will bring additional physicians to Morgan County once the new hospital is complete. Anton’s intervention was an unexpected delay,” stated the release. “In 2016, patients visited MMH more than 14,500 times. Of those visits, nearly 8,000 were through the facility’s emergency room and over 1,800 were children. The facility is certified as a Level IV Trauma Center, Remote Treatment Stroke Center, and is accredited by The Joint Commission. Independent analysis shows MMH currently generates a local economic impact of $10.5 million annually. Once complete, this impact will grow to an estimated $14.3.million annually and reach $17 million annually in 10 years.”

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