Chris Carr, Georgia’s Attorney General, approved the sale of Milledgeville’s Oconee Regional Medical Center to Navicent Health Oconee LLC on Monday afternoon, according to the Union-Recorder.
There had been rumblings about Oconee Regional’s financial health for at least the past four years. Hospital staff have cited an aging population, declining government payments, increasing numbers of uninsured patients, and a lower (particularly insured) patient volume as the causes for its financial distress. The culprits are familiar to many rural hospitals around the state, six of which have closed their doors since 2013.
Of course, Milledgeville has taken some outsized hits that contributed to an unusually large spike in uncompensated care, losing several major employers in the past decade: Central State Hospital, Rheem, Shaw, three of five state prisons, Plant Harllee Branch, and a youth detention center. These shutdowns accounted for the loss of 4,500 jobs in a town of just over 18,000 and a county of 45,000. At its worst in 2012, unemployment was a whopping 16.6 percent in Milledgeville, though today it hovers around 7.9 percent, compared to 5 percent for the rest of the state. According to the Census Bureau, the median income in Milledgeville was $20,859 in 2015 — the lowest of any city in Georgia — and 46.8 percent of residents currently live in poverty. Obviously, this economic freefall has exacerbated the financial stress on the hospital.
Oconee Regional serves a seven county area, so it reaches far beyond Milledgeville and Baldwin County. Finding a buyer has kept residents in the area from losing access to surgical and emergency care, but it has also saved scores of jobs in an area that has desperately needed positive economic news.
Oconee Regional’s sale hasn’t been without drama, as residents had first heard the hospital was sold to Prime Healthcare Foundation when it declared bankruptcy back in May. At the time of its bankruptcy declaration, Oconee Regional had $10 million in liabilities, amounting to 149 pages of creditors in its filing. While under bankruptcy protection, there was the potential for another buyer to offer a higher bid than Prime Healthcare’s $12 million. Navicent became that bidder on June 29th.
Why does this matter? About a year and a half ago, Oconee Regional and Navicent ended a managerial partnership that was meant to financially strengthen the hospital, with Navicent claiming a breach of contract by Oconee Regional. Some local physicians in particular were unhappy with the past arrangement with Navicent, so they were pleased with Prime Healthcare buyout when it was announced. No word on their reaction to Navicent’s being the high bidder for the hospital.
For their part, Navicent has said employees in good standing will continue in their positions after the sale.