It’s been about four months since a heated election contest over the future of OCH Regional Medical Center culminated with Oktibbeha County’s voters deciding to keep the facility locally owned.
The November referendum prevented county supervisors from moving ahead with a potential sale or lease of the 96 bed, county-owned facility.
Hospital CEO Richard Hilton said the process of considering a sale, which supervisors started in 2016, was a cloud over the hospital that hindered physician recruitment and dampened employee morale. With that cloud gone, he said, things at OCH are picking up.
“Post-election, employees are walking around with smiles on their faces, telling me they’re relieved that it’s over with,” Hilton said.
Hilton said the election being over has also allowed OCH to pick up its recruiting again.
“We were getting clouded with the election,” he said. “We had doctors that just finally said to the recruiters, ‘We don’t want to come to Starkville. We just don’t like all the political things associated with the sale of the hospital.’
“Now that the election’s over with, we’re getting contacts made,” he added. “Now we’re back into our mode of showcasing Starkville, a growing community with Mississippi State’s presence in the background helping to drive economic development. We’ve got the Partnership and the (Golden Triangle Development) LINK for industrial development — and population growth as compared to other places.”
In terms of super-specialists — doctors who provide very specific services such as endocrinologists, open heart surgeons or vascular surgeons — Hilton said OCH may be able to begin securing part-time presences.
For example, a plastic surgeon who provides breast reconstruction surgery recently started and completed their first surgery in January. He said the strength of OCH’s breast disease management program helped pull the doctor to offer services in Starkville.
“That typically would be done someplace else, like Jackson,” he said.
Some changes may still lie ahead for OCH. On Jan. 23, Hilton told the hospital’s board that three systems — North Mississippi Health Services of Tupelo, The University of Mississippi Medical Center in Jackson, and Memphis-based Baptist Memorial Health Services — have expressed interest in affiliating with OCH.
Affiliating with a larger hospital would allow OCH to remain locally owned while expanding services by bringing the weight of its affiliate partner to bear.
“We’re really excited about the potential that could come to us that, I think, should make OCH’s visibility much broader,” he said.
OCH’s administration is still working through determining if affiliation is the right choice for the hospital, and that process will likely take months, if not longer. However, should the hospital affiliate with another system, Hilton said it will still rely on support from the community using its facilities.
“If we make it happen, through affiliation, our expectation is the people will come to support that,” he said. “That’s what will have to happen for the future of OCH — for the community to see that we’re doing what they’re asking us to do.
“In return for that, we need them to use those facilities and those services because that’s the only way that we can increase scale,” he added.
Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors President Orlando Trainer, a consistent proponent of selling the hospital, said he’s pleased to see the affiliation discussion progressing.
“Although the citizens decided they want to keep the hospital, the message was clear that there’s room for opportunity and room to advance health care beyond what we have now,” Trainer said. “I want to applaud the administration for considering affiliation from these entities.”
WORDS BY ALEX HOLLOWAY
PHOTOS BY LUISA PORTER