Ascension Sacred Heart Gulf Vice President of Nursing Kelly Beach speaks to the Gulf County Board of County Commissioners on Feb. 28. [ Screenshot from BOCC live stream ]
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County to front-load hospital payments after pandemic

At their most recent regular meeting, the Gulf County Board of County Commissioners unanimously voted to approve an accelerated payment schedule for their funding agreement with the Ascension Sacred Heart Hospital.

The vote came after the county’s Healthcare Trust Board unanimously voted to recommend the hospital receive front-loaded payments for the next four years in order to offset costs associated with the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We are asking for just a bit more front-loaded over the next four years,” said the hospital’s Vice President of Nursing Kelly Beach, appearing before the Board of County Commissioners on Feb. 28. “The reason for this is due to rising healthcare costs, payer mix and contract labor coming out of COVID.”

“Ascension (Sacred Heart) has been charged with the financial recovery, but the community is also experiencing growth, and so if this is approved, it allows us to focus on financial recovery and growth simultaneously.”

The amendment came after the hospital requested a slight acceleration in some of the future payments laid out by their current funding agreement with the county.

The money has typically been paid out in installments of about $1.061 million per year. With the accelerated payments, the hospital would receive about $1.776 million in 2023, about $1.775 million in 2024, about $1.670 million in 2025 and exactly $1.3 million in 2026.

“This is front-loading some of the money. The (healthcare) trust fund has the funds to pay this, so we don’t see a problem with that,” said County Administrator Michael Hammond at the Feb. 28 meeting, recommending the commissioners vote to approve the request.

The overall $21.5 million that the county agreed to pay to the hospital board through their funding agreement remains unchanged.

“This does not change the overall number,” said Hammond. “… It may line up with an earlier termination date at the end.”

The Board of County Commissioners unanimously voted to approve the request.

Commissioners call for reopened healthcare funding discussions with surrounding counties

Several commissioners also voiced that they would like the county to inquire with neighboring counties, whose residents frequent Gulf County healthcare facilities, to see if they would be willing to help with future rising healthcare costs.

“I’d love to see us reach out to the surrounding counties, because I’m a little concerned that we’re providing energy and care to other counties that is eating into our (resources),” said Commissioner Phillip McCroan.

The statement comes in the wake of a months-long discourse between Gulf and Franklin counties last year, in which Franklin County was asked to provide financial support to help fund a kidney dialysis facility on the Ascension Sacred Heart complex.

Franklin County ultimately declined to participate in a funding agreement, and financial support for the facility, which opened to the public last month, was provided solely by Gulf County. The facility remains the area’s only dialysis facility.

This was referenced by Commissioner Patrick Farrell directly at the Feb. 28 meeting.

“I do think we need to reach out, especially to Franklin County,” he said. “We ran into this with our dialysis. They’re not participating, but yet we’re getting all their patients… The support would be needed.”

Beach told the commissioners that the hospital had already had discussions about reaching out to governments in surrounding counties about their potential to provide support.