Editorial

Help is on the way for rural Georgia hospitals whose ranks are thinning under the pressures of financial strains and lack of resources. The help can’t come too soon: In the past three years, five rural hospitals in the state have had to close. 

A new state program, set for launch in January, opens the way for individuals and corporations to make donations to eligible rural hospitals and receive state tax credits. This program can be a boon for Polk Medical Center in Cedartown, which is on a list of 47 eligible hospitals determined by the Georgia Department of Revenue.

Here’s how the tax-credit program will work: Donations of up to $4 million a year may be made to an eligible hospital, with individuals and corporations each limited to $2 million of that amount.

Statewide, donations will be limited to $50 million in 2017, $60 million in 2018 and $70 million in 2019, after which the program sunsets.

Tax credits for an individual are limited to 70 percent of the amount given or $2,500, whichever is less, and $5,000 for couples, on the same basis. For corporations, the credits are limited to 70 percent of the donation or 75 percent of state income tax liability, whichever is less.

This program is one of the steps being taken in Georgia to improve healthcare, as the Rome Seven Hills Rotary Club heard recently from Dr. Doug Patten, chief medical officer of the Georgia Hospital Association. He described the American version of healthcare in terms of delivering sick care and hurt care.

“If you get sick or hurt, there’s no place in the world you’d rather be than here,” he said. But he juxtaposed: “The rest of the world is investing in things which keep people from getting sick or hurt.”

For our rural hospitals, just keeping the doors open with essential services is a challenge.

While Dr. Patten was in Rome, several rural hospital CEOs were in Atlanta for the kickoff of Rural Healthcare 180 to promote the tax credit plan, Georgia Health News reported. Among the officials was Kim Gilman, CEO of Phoebe Worth Hospital in Sylvester and Southwest Georgia Regional Medical Center in Cuthbert. Of the new state program, she said: “The tax credit legislation is a lifeline for us, helping us keep essential services in our rural communities.”

The dilemma for such hospitals was explained by CEO Gilman, who said each of her hospitals had to spend more than $1 million for electronic records systems to comply with federal regulations but consequently had no funds to improve facility infrastructure and acquire needed technology as well as raise the pay of employees.

Each of the two hospitals has 25 beds, same as Polk Medical Center.

The new tax credit program is of special interest to the Georgia Poultry Federation, representing employers of more than 50,000 people in this state, mostly in rural areas including Northwest Georgia.

The program “presents a tremendous opportunity” to improve health care in these rural areas, task force member Mike Giles of the poultry group said. To underscore the point, he announced that Claxton Poultry has already pledged to donate to Evans Memorial Hospital in Southeast Georgia.

This can serve as a cue for poultry growers in the area served by Polk Medical Center and for other individuals and corporations willing to help this important healthcare facility — while receiving a tax credit that pays for most of the donation. This is a win-win.

On title loan reform in the state

From The Savannah Morning News

People of limited means and desperate need sometimes are easy prey for companies that take advantage of their helplessness by offering so-called auto title loans. These companies force borrowers to pay unconscionably high interest rates and risk the loss of their cars when they are late paying. And that’s when it’s done legally, especially in a state like Georgia whose lawmakers refuse to enact reforms.

So, imagine how abusive a company in Georgia must be before federal regulators call its practices “unacceptable and illegal.” That’s what happened in the case of Savannah-based TMX Finance LLC, the parent of TitleMax, one of the nation’s largest title lenders.

The U.S. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau slapped a $9 million penalty on TMX on Sept. 26 for hiding the true cost of renewing its loans (up to 300 percent!), showing up at borrowers’ homes and jobs to collect, thus exposing the fact of their debts to bosses, families and friends.

And yet, in the wake of the whopping fine, the president of TMX Finance Family of Companies made it sound as if TMX deserves a medal for generosity toward the needy.

“Many of our customers have nowhere to else to turn when they suffer from short-term financial setbacks,” Otto Bielss said in a statement. “We are committed to remaining a reliable source of credit for them when the need arises.”

While the title-loan industry is a high-risk business, and it does provide a service that other lenders won’t provide, as many borrowers are poor credit risks, the business practices of some title-loan companies are designed to keep its customers mired in debt and poverty.

Many people would be more favorably impressed with TMX’s concern if its interest rates fell somewhere within the realm of reason so that people wouldn’t lose their cars, which may be their only asset and their only way to get to work to earn money and pay off their debts. But that’s not even what got them fined by the feds.

It was for harassing borrowers at work and at home, and neglecting to inform them that they could wind up owing three times the sum they borrowed.

And while TMX doesn’t exactly deny the conduct, it doesn’t admit it, either.

And it says those “field visits” to collect debts have been against company policy since last year. The consumer agency’s investigation dates from 2011.

As for the $9 million payment, TMX says it agreed to that sum to settle the matter. Unfortunately, none of the sum will be returned as restitution.

TMX, was founded here in 1988, operates in 18 states through more than 1,300 storefronts making loans as TitleBucks and InstaLoan as well as TitleMax.

The Georgia General Assembly capped the interest rate at an effective annual rate of 300 percent for the first three months of the loan.

Now it’s time to lower that outrageously high cap and force lenders to return to delinquent borrowers at least some of the proceeds from selling repossessed cars.

Needy Georgians shouldn’t be such easy prey for predatory lenders.