Hospital referendum on ballot

Next week local residents will be given the opportunity to vote on whether or not they feel county commissioners should raise the county millage rate by up to 3 mills to support operations at Jefferson Hospital.
On Tuesday, March 21, all precincts in Jefferson County will be open to voters and the only item on the ballot will be the non-binding advisory referendum. 
While state law allows county governments to levy as much as 7 mils to support public hospitals without taking the decision before voters, the commission decided last year to ask area residents for their opinion in an official, yet non-binding referendum.
The issue arose in July of 2016 when Jefferson Hospital approached the county commission asking it to levy 3 mils of dedicated taxes, the equivalent of $1.2 million, for the next year to support hospital operations.  At the time the hospital said that it would only need the funding for one year as it had already taken steps and had plans to get the hospital’s finances in line. However, without at least temporary assistance, hospital officials said they would not be able to meet its financial obligations by September of 2016. 
At the time the county commission decided to provide month-to-month financial support leading up to the March referendum. 
Over the last several months Jefferson Hospital CEO Lou Semrad has been holding community open house meetings throughout the county to explain the position the hospital is in, answer questions regarding the referendum, and describe his plan to put the hospital in a place where it will no longer need the 3 mills to operate. 
The primary tenets of Semrad’s plan involve raising revenue by growing the hospital’s laboratory services, working with a revenue cycle audit team, using grassroots networking to expand Medicaid to area residents who qualify but need assistance and education in registering and implementing a 340B drug program for low income patients that will allow the hospital to purchase drugs at “pennies on the dollar” and pass the savings on to customers. Semrad said he also has more long range goals to increase revenue such as expanding services and potentially adding a geriatric psychology program to make more use of the facility’s 37 hospital beds.
In January, County Administrator Adam Mestres said that he was pleased with the progress he had seen the hospital make since it approached the commission last summer. 
“The hospital has a plan that is being implemented to improve its finances so it doesn’t need taxpayer money,” Mestres said. “Their goal all along is that they don’t want to need our money and that they are trying to be independent of that….Each month they are getting better and even now they are less reliant on it (county support).”
If passed, county officials have said that hospital officials will have to come before Jefferson County’s commission annually to justify any continued financial support for the upcoming year. 
“If the hospital only needs 2 mills or a mill and a half, that’s what the county is going to assess for the hospital,” Semrad said. “So there is a check and balance there. Hearing the concerns of the citizens, this is how we are addressing that.”
As of last week, some 310 area residents had chosen to take advantage of early voting on this issue. 
“Those of you who are aware, please communicate with your friends, neighbors and loved ones,” Semrad said Tuesday, one week before Election Day. “I know that nobody wants to pay more taxes, but this is bigger than any one tax payer. This referendum, while it is about up to 3 mills for the hospital, it really is about keeping the hospital open to ensure the marketability of this county to new businesses.”