Lee county hospital aims for year-end reopening

Published 10:07 am Wednesday, December 12, 2018

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Lee County Medical Center may soon be open for business again.

Plans call for a 25-bed acute care hospital with two general purpose operating rooms opening by Dec. 31 — a deadline under the existing certificate of public need from the state.

The county’s only hospital, in Pennington Gap, abruptly shut its doors in 2013.

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Americore Health, a Florida-based rural hospital management and acquisition company, purchased the property last year for $2 million and has already invested around $5 million into opening the facility and will likely spend around another $2 million, Americore CEO Grant White said.

By all accounts, Americore had been working diligently on the reopening until mid-August, when work on the project seemed to come to a halt, said Jeff Mitchell, a Blacksburg-based attorney for the county hospital authority that was formed after its closure.

Concerns were raised after authority members started seeing news reports about problems at the company’s other hospitals, including unpaid tax bills , payroll snags , layoffs and disputes with lenders .

The authority recently gave the company two weeks to provide evidence of the “viability and sustainability of the project,” Mitchell said. He said he expects the board to determine at its next meeting Thursday whether it thinks the company can get the hospital reopened and consider next steps.

“Our county desperately needs a hospital,” said Dr. J. Scott Litton Jr., a family medicine doctor and a native of mountainous Lee County, which is home to some 24,000 people.

Litton and other local officials and community leaders say the closure has been devastating, resulting not only in far longer travel times for patients but also a strain on emergency services and the local economy. Some are convinced people have died because of a lack of access to care.

Litton said it’s not unusual to have patients waiting in his parking lot before the office opens, often with issues that would be better treated at an emergency department.

“We have patients that walk in with fractures, and patients that walk in with their hand wrapped with a towel with an active, bleeding laceration,” Litton said.

Lee County’s long, triangular shape has made the loss of the hospital “a nightmare for emergency responders,” said county administrator Dane Poe.

In some areas, it’s now at least an hour to get to a hospital of any kind, and the closest trauma center is in Kingsport, Tennessee, Poe said. That can mean a three- to four-hour turnaround on a single call for the county’s patchwork of volunteer rescue squads.

The closing also cost the county jobs and has made it harder to recruit new industries or even workers to the area, Poe said.

White said he thinks Americore can satisfy the authority and is committed to seeing the project through.

“We’re pushing full steam ahead to get the place reopened by the end of the year,” he said Friday.

Meanwhile, the community is hoping and praying for the best.

“I can’t think of anything more important to Lee County right now, or anytime, than a hospital,” said longtime sheriff Gary Parsons.