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Three events over 80-year period result in top-ranked hospital in Union County

The Union County government continued to use the former Shands Hospital for storage and office space for several years after the new Union County General Hospital opened in 1966. This group of doctors, hospital workers, volunteers and others associated with hospital operations in Union County posed in front of one of the Shands Hospital buildings the day before it was demolished. How many of the group can you identify? Photo: Union Co. Heritage Museum

This is the second in a two-part narrative about the history of hospitals in Union County. Part One was posted Monday, April 4th. See link to Part One below.

In 1946 the U.S. Congress had passed, and President Harry Truman had signed the Hill-Burton Act, a law that provided federal assistance for the construction of modern hospitals in rural communities. The Act, which financed many new hospitals, also imposed additional rules and regulations on how those hospitals were to be operated.

Working with Mrs. Shands, the local medical community, the offices of Congressman Jamie Whitten, Senator Jim Eastland, Senator John Stennis, architects and other professionals, the board, with the leadership of Supervisor Sam Tom Barkley, determined to build a brand new Hill-Burton hospital in New Albany.

This photograph shows the Union County General Hospital soon after it opened in 1966. The 65-bed hospital was built by the Union County Board of Supervisors with the help of the 1946 Hill-Burton Act Photo: Union Co. Heritage Museum

This photograph shows the Union County General Hospital soon after it opened in 1966. The 65-bed hospital was built by the Union County Board of Supervisors with the help of the 1946 Hill-Burton Act
Photo: Union Co. Heritage Museum

Union County General Hospital, a three-story, 65-bed facility, opened in March, 1966, a half-century ago, west of downtown New Albany on Highway 30 West. The first administrator was R. B. Harrington. The late Dr. James Thornton, who had moved to the new hospital from Shands Hospital, delivered the first baby in the new facility.

The early 1960s were a time of radical changes in the way health care was paid for in America. In the early 1960s President John F. Kennedy advocated what he called “Medical Care for the Aged.” As with much of Kennedy’s legislative agenda, the plan went nowhere. However, following Kennedy’s assassination, the powerful political skills of Lyndon Baines Johnson brought about the launch of both Medicare and Medicaid in 1965. With the two federal health care programs came dozens of new regulations, placing a heavy new administrative and regulatory burdens on hospitals and other health care providers

A nice new facility and strong public support aside, 1966 was a tough time to go into the fast-changing hospital business in America. In addition to the Hill-Burton rules and regulations, hospitals now struggled with the new Medicare and Medicaid requirements.

The cost of health care for the entire country increased sharply from 1960 to 1985. U.S. healthcare expenditures as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) doubled during that 25 years, from 5.1 percent to 10.1 percent. The reasons for the huge increase are too complex to discuss here. Suffice it to say that Medicare, Medicaid and private health insurance plans all tried to put the brakes on out-of-control costs. HMOs sprung up attempting to hold down health care costs. Government and private insurance plans curtailed the kinds of services they would pay for and reduced how much they would pay.

“I thought county boards of supervisors had no business trying to run a hospital.” Danny Jordan, past President, Union County Board of Supervisors
The cost of operating hospitals in America continued to increase, while third-party payers reduced the flow of available money. Small town hospitals, like the new Hill-Burton financed Union County General Hospital, were caught in a tight squeeze.

County officials, medical professionals and business people in Union County and elsewhere began looking for ways to meet assure the survival of their small town community hospitals.

Northeast Mississippi Medical Center (NMMC) in Tupelo continued to grow, but a great deal of that growth was driven by the Tupelo hospital acquiring small town hospitals — in Pontotoc, Baldwyn and Fulton, for example. NMMC closed or radically reduced services at the small hospitals they bought in this part of the state. It increased the cash flow to NMMC, and may have been more efficient overall, but it meant medical care became less available and more expensive for people in the small towns that lost their hospital services.

Danny Jordan retired earlier this year after 30 years on the Union County Board of Supervisors. He said turning operations of the county-owned hospital over to the Baptist Memorial Health Care organization is "one of the decisions I'm proudest of during my time on the county board."

Danny Jordan retired earlier this year after 30 years on the Union County Board of Supervisors. He said turning operations of the county-owned hospital over to the Baptist Memorial Health Care organization is “one of the decisions I’m proudest of during my time on the county board.”

Danny Jordan retired early this year after 30 years on the Union County Board of Supervisors, the last 12 years as president of the board. He has vivid recollections of the hospital situation when he first went on the county board in 1985.

“In the late 1980s the Union County-owned hospital was not doing very well,” Jordan said.”A great many hospitals around were not doing well at that time. The management at the hospital was not what it needed to be. The county board had started the hospital, which was good, but it was time to turn it over to some good business people. I thought county boards of supervisors had no business trying to run a hospital.”

The board studied its options. NMMC would have gladly taken over the hospital in New Albany, but, said Jordan, “We were afraid that Tupelo would turn it into a first aid station.”

In 1987 the Union County Board of Supervisors negotiated a management contract with Baptist Memorial Health Care of Memphis. Two years later the board leased the hospital to the Baptist organization on a long-term basis.

“We picked Baptist because we believed they would give Union County a full service hospital, not a first aid facility from which patients would be taken to another city for treatment,” says Danny Jordan. “It was done during the early part of my time on the board, but it is one of the decisions I’m proudest of.”

Baptist Memorial Health Care Corporation(BMHCC) did not turn the Union County hospital into a first aid station. In fact, since 1989, BMHCC has invested $70-million of its money into improvements at the hospital in New Albany.

The Baptist organization took control of a 65-bed hospital in 1989. Several major construction projects during the intervening 27 years have increased the hospital to today’s 153-bed facility. The types and scale of medical services available in New Albany have also increased dramatically under Baptist leadership.

Baptist Memorial Health Care invested in a new Women’s Center at the New Albany hospital in 2008. The expanded facility includes 10 suites for labor, delivery and recovery. There are now 18 post partum rooms in the Women’s Center. There are special suites for Cesarean delivery, an expanded nursery and an enlarged and improved waiting room in the new Women’s Center. About 1,000 babies are delivered here each year. Nearly all the babies born to Union County mothers are now born at Baptist Memorial Hospital-Union County. Additionally, a great many babies are born here each year from mothers who live outside Union County.

Baptist Memorial Health Care has invested more than $70-million in Baptist Union County since 1989. This is the new Emergency Department with 22 examination rooms completed in July 2014 at a cost of $12 million.

Baptist Memorial Health Care has invested more than $70-million in Baptist Union County since 1989. This is the new Emergency Department with 22 examination rooms completed in July 2014 at a cost of $12 million.

Less than two years ago, Baptist Memorial Health Care invested $12-million in a new, expanded emergency department at the New Albany hospital. The new emergency department opened in July of 2014 with 22 examination rooms, compared to seven examination rooms in the old. The new facility also has two trauma rooms and two triage rooms.

It enjoyed growth of 23 percent in its first 12 months of operation in its new facilities, and has enjoyed additional growth of 12-13 percent in the first two months of 2016 over the same period in 2015.

A “vertical” waiting area in the new emergency department means patients spend little time in the waiting room and are actually examined by medical staff much faster than in the old emergency department. Although the new emergency department averages serving 90 or more patients each day, there are few people seen waiting. Prior to the new emergency department opening, typical patients visiting the old facility experienced a total stay of between six and eight hours. The average total length of stay in the ER has been reduced to less than two hours.

“The new emergency department at Baptist Union County is designed to see up to 45,000 patients annually,” said Walter Grace, CEO and administrator of Baptist Union County.

Dr. Robert Pitcock, MD is the medical director of the Baptist Union County emergency department. Pitcock says advanced technology has greatly improved emergency care here. He said “telemedicine” has made major improvements in treatment a reality.

Telemedicine can be defined as “the use of telecommunication and information technologies in order to provide clinical health care at a distance.” High resolution video cameras and monitors make it possible for medical specialists in other cities to see what is happening with patients in New Albany, and provide informed consultation to ER doctors. Pitcock said it is sometimes possible for the high-resolution television cameras used in telemedicine to see what is going on with the patient better than physicians can see with the naked eye.

Renovations are currently underway to create a new cancer treatment center in the space previously occupied by the old emergency department. Plans call for the full range of cancer chemotherapy treatment to be available at Baptist Union County.

This is the front of the 153-bed Baptist Union County hospital as it appears today.

This is the front of the 153-bed Baptist Union County hospital as it appears today.

The measurement of quality and performance for all hospitals in the United States, the standards by which hospitals are accredited — certified to be competent for service — are overseen by an organization now known as The Joint Commission. It is recognized throughout the world as, quite simply, the quality control establishment for all hospitals in America. The Joint Commission is headquartered in Oak Brook Terrace, Illinois, a Chicago suburb.

The Joint Commission’s fifth-annual list of national “Top Performers” was announced on Tuesday, November 17, 2015. Baptist Union County was named one of the year’s top performers, one of only 10 Mississippi hospitals to be so honored. New Albany — population 8,500 — was the smallest MS town whose hospital made the Joint Commission “Top Performers” list. Columbus, Miss., population about 25,000, was the next smallest MS town with a hospital to receive the “Top Performers” designation; the Columbus hospital is also operated by Baptist Memorial Health Care.

The Top Performers program recognizes accredited hospitals who achieve excellence on accountability measure performance. The program is based on data for certain conditions, including heart attack, heart failure, pneumonia, surgical care, children’s asthma, inpatient psychiatric services, venous thromboembolism, stroke, perinatal care, immunization, tobacco treatment and substance use. The Joint Commission Top Performer evaluation is unique in that it is based on objective data, which enables each hospital to track its progress.

Fate has indeed been more than kind as to the quality of health care enjoyed by people in Union County, Mississippi. Three fortuitous events during the last 80 years made it happen:

  • A brilliant young surgeon was “tricked” into coming to New Albany and buying a small hospital in 1936.
  • The county government took the risk of building a new hospital when the need arose in 1966.
  • The Union County Board of Supervisors decided to give Baptist Memorial Health Care control of the county-owned hospital in 1987.

To read Part One of this history of hospitals in Union County: Smart, hard work brings superior healthcare to Union County

Next week NAnewsweb.com will publish a separate stand-alone feature with additional photographs and information about Dr. Robert Shands, the Vanderbilt and Harvard-trained surgeon who operated Shands Hospital starting in 1937.

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