Hutcheson Medical Center

Closing Hutcheson hospital will have serious consequences across northwest Georgia, officials say.

“Hutcheson has been supported by the three counties (Walker, Dade and Catoosa) since it opened,” said Terry Coleman, a longtime member of the Georgia General Assembly and former speaker of the House. “It is such a health-care and economic driver for the community — at one time it had about 900 employees — and its closure will have a huge negative impact.”

Beyond the employees losing paychecks and having money to spend at local businesses, there will be other losses.

“Since the layoffs, I don’t see my regular Hutcheson customers,” said Jack Goodlet, owner of Park Place Restaurant, which is located on LaFayette Road (U.S. Highway 27), just a couple blocks from the hospital’s main campus. “It is going to hurt.”

“Anytime you lose a major employer it is going to hurt,” Goodlet said. “Their location is strategic to this end of town — not just for Park Place but for all businesses in this area.”Coleman said his view of the Hutcheson situation is biased since he represents Prime Healthcare, a potential buyer. But the public needs to be aware of what could occur if Hutcheson were to close, he said.

Other officials in Walker and Catoosa counties have raised questions about what happens if Hutcheson is no more.

For stroke and heart attack victims, minutes can mean the difference between life or death. Increasing the time it takes to provide medical care to such patients — or someone critically injured in an accident — could prove deadly. What happens to insurance premiums if the distance to a fully staffed emergency room increases?

“Look to what the counties will have to do in increasing ambulance services,” Coleman said.

Since ambulance crews must wait for a patient’s emergency room admission, having a local hospital has allowed ambulance crews to return more quickly to on-call status.

DeWayne Wilson, whose Angel EMS is Catoosa County’s emergency ambulance provider, said the turnaround time at Hutcheson’s emergency room is usually in the 10-15 minute range. But that changes if Hutcheson closes, since ambulances would then have to travel to hospitals in Chattanooga.

“The ambulance issues are tremendous,” Wilson said. “Our average turnaround time at Erlanger is an hour to an hour and a half. The wait time at Memorial is a half hour to an hour and a half. The wait time at Parkridge main or East is rarely 15 minutes.”

Will the purchase and staffing of more emergency vehicles be required if Hutcheson is no longer available? The answer remains an unknown at this time.

What happens when the morgue closes?

Wilson, who also is coroner for Walker County, and Catoosa County coroner Vanita Hullender agree that closing Hutcheson means both counties will face administrative headaches in addition to losing their morgues.

“The hospital closure will cause extreme issues with all the patients going to Tennessee hospitals,” Wilson said. “If someone now dies after being transported, it will be a Tennessee death certificate because they died in Tennessee.

“The doctors in the emergency room do not like signing death certificates because of liability and I don't blame them,” he said. “We, as Georgia coroners, cannot sign a death certificate unless it is a Georgia death certificate. In addition to that issue we use the hospital morgue which will be not available after it closes.”

Wilson said he has plans in place to work with local funeral homes if the county is without a morgue.

“I have a backup plan for storage until we can eventually build a morgue,” Hullender said. “We do have a way of securing the chain of custody. Body bags have a tamper-proof lock.”

Hullender said that when it became apparent that Hutcheson’s morgue might be closed, she started working to find alternatives. But not being able to sign a death certificate places undue hardships on already grieving families, she said.

The morgue is mainly used for unclaimed or indigent corpses, she said, but there is also a need to store those requiring an autopsy — something which is done at a state facility.

“Sometimes we have to wait three days for an autopsy table at the crime lab,” she said.

Catoosa’s coroner said that sometime in the future it might be feasible for the county to have a single building to house a morgue, forensic center, records storage and offices.

Hullender also expressed her concerns about how the hospital’s closing will affect the living.

“This will devastate northwest Georgia for the simple fact of the ambulance backups,” she said, echoing Wilson’s remarks about turnaround time for EMS ambulances.

“Traveling to Tennessee is further away. There are often waiting lines at the ER and if there is an emergency the time pressure can be the intense.”

Last year, during court-mandated meetings to consider the hospital’s sale, Walker County Emergency Services’ chief Randy Camp said “having to go somewhere else if Hutcheson closes was a major concern, one that is unchanged.”

At the time, the county EMS operated emergency ambulance services in Walker County, something that is now handled by Puckett EMS.

Of 5,758 responses to local 911 medical calls, Camp said during that meeting last November, WCEM transported 2,961 of them to the Hutcheson hospital emergency room.

“Where would those 3,000 additional patients go?” he asked, noting that it is not unusual to have Chattanooga area hospitals divert patients because they are full.

Not only could local ambulances be shuttling from place to place — from Memorial to Parkride to Erlanger hospitals — looking for an available emergency room, that is not the end of their responsibility to the patient they transport.

Ambulances are not buses. They cannot drop off a patient at receiving and drive away as soon as the hospital doors close. EMS personnel must remain until the person in their care is admitted into the hospital for treatment. That is why area emergency room parking lots sometimes look like car lots for ambulances.

Chief Camp also noted it would require more ambulances and staff to provide the same services should Hutcheson be shuttered, partly because some insurance requires using Georgia networks.

WCEMS has an average response time of about eight minutes, according to Camp. Add perhaps 10 or so minutes to evaluate and assess the situation upon arrival, and only then does the ambulance ride begin. The contract with Puckett EMS requires an ambulance respond within 15 minutes of dispatch to urban areas and in less than 25 minutes to rural areas.

Though trained personnel treat patients during transport, every minute counts when dealing with heart attacks, drowning, allergic reactions, strokes, major trauma or other life-threatening situations.

Transporting patients to Rome, Ga., adds 44 minutes to the time an ambulance is on the road. Racing to Dalton might add about half that amount of extra minutes to the time a patient is being transported between home and hospital. Either way, minutes matter in an emergency. And having Hutcheson open and available can trim travel time in half.

“This is a facility that is needed to save the lives of our citizens,” Camp said.

During that same 2014 meeting, Walker County sheriff Steve Wilson offered personal and professional reasons why he feels Hutcheson’s existence is essential.

As a cancer survivor, Wilson said he appreciated having Fuller Cancer Center, Battlefield Imaging and the hospital’s outpatient services available for treatment. Not only was it more convenient, Wilson said, “Never was I just a number, it was their personal touch.”

Professionally, the sheriff said it is unfortunate that the Hutcheson ER is used so often by inmates, but “they are our only source of diagnostic” and late-night medical care. Wilson said that if Hutcheson closes, the Walker County Sheriff’s Department will use Hamilton Medical Center in Dalton for urgent and emergency medical care of inmates.

In addition to maintaining a jail, the law requires that sheriffs provide transportation of the mentally ill and offer medical care to inmates and those who are taken into custody.

Where will county jail inmates be taken if hospitalization is required?

Catoosa County sheriff Gary Sisk said he contracted Atlanta-based Correct Health to provide medical care at the Catoosa County jail, so not having Hutcheson will not severely impact inmate care.

But not having Hutcheson will make assessment and treatment of the mentally ill more complicated. Hutcheson provided mental health evaluations and its closing means local deputies must carry individuals to Dalton or Rome for such screenings.

There are also questions about the area being able to attract doctors, particularly specialists, if there is no nearby hospital where they can admit and treat patients.

Coleman described what happened in McRae, a town in Telfair County about midway between Columbus and Savannah, after its hospital closed.

Today, that town’s derelict hospital sits empty, vandalized and stripped of anything worth stealing by thieves, Coleman said.

The former state legislator said he finds it odd that the state “offered a couple $100 millions to lure Volvo” to Georgia, something that might have created 1,500-2,000 jobs, yet is unwilling to offer half that amount to Hutcheson or any of the Peach State’s other failing hospitals.

Coleman said Prime would either have to gut and renovated Hutcheson or build a new hospital, something the company estimates might require an expenditure of $30-50 million. Restoring Southern Regional “to get it back to where it once was” is expected to require an investment of $40-50 million, an amount Coleman said Prime is prepared to invest.

Saying Regions Bank is the biggest decision-maker in the current Hutcheson proceedings, Coleman wondered if the bank could benefit more from a hospital that is open and returns to operating at capacity.

“Erlanger benefits (from Hutcheson’s closure) because they get patients — they’re buying patients,” he said. “This is not good for the northwest Georgia region.”

A firm offer to purchase Hutcheson’s main campus, including the daycare and its facilities on Battlefield Parkway but excluding Parkside Nursing Home, is now being negotiated and is expected to be presented this week to the bankruptcy court.

“This is like a house being on fire,” he said. “At a certain point, there is no point in putting it out.”


Mike O'Neal is assistant editor for the Walker County Messenger in LaFayette, Ga.

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