Rural Georgia hospital gains reprieve

A rural Georgia hospital that was about to close for lack of funds will stay open after all, at least for now.

The company that owned Jenkins Medical Center in Millen, Ga. had announced in April that it would shut the aging facility down and send patients to a sister hospital 20 miles away. Instead, with days to go before the June 24 shutdown, Optim Health System of Savannah announced it sold the hospital to another company that intends to run it.

“It’s great news,” said Jeff Brantley, city administrator of Millen and a member of the local hospital authority. “We’re keeping the facility, we’re keeping the jobs, and looking for, hopefully, expanded services.”

The new owner doesn’t intend to just run the hospital. Records filed with the state of Georgia and the Florida Bar Association show the company that bought the hospital, GA Medical Holdings, Corp., is headed by a Florida lawyer who runs a medical testing company in that state, Aaron Durall.

If Durall wants to expand his company’s medical testing business in Georgia, it will be able to charge more if the test results are attached to a hospital license, Brantley said.

Now it’s got one.

The new owners also own a hospital in Dahlonega and one in Centre, Alabama, Brantley said.

Durall and the hospital’s new interim administrator, Earl Whiteley, did not immediately return messages from the AJC. Optim referred questions about the sale price and other aspects of the deal to Whiteley.

Local officials are just happy that patients will have 24-hour emergency room services available.

King Rocker, Millen’s mayor and a local development official, was devastated when he heard the hospital would close. Not only would the loss of skilled jobs hurt the area, he feared, but there are fundamental ripple effects. If any business is looking for a new location to settle, it doesn’t want to bring jobs to an area with no hospital.

“Oh man that’s good news,” Rocker said about the purchase. “You don’t want your hospital to close. It just leaves a lot of voids you can’t help.”

GA Medical Holdings is incorporated in Delaware, but Delaware incorporations are often just a formality because of the state’s corporation-friendly laws.

Jenkins Medical Center would have been the eighth rural hospital to close its doors in Georgia since 2010. Like others, it has faced a crunch from wilting reimbursements for Medicare and Medicaid patients. In addition, Optim said too many patients were using the emergency room for minor issues they could take to their doctor.

The surrounding population has not declined, but the decline in private health insurance and the squeeze in federal reimbursements has been calamitous for rural health care, experts say.