RMC Jacksonville 2

Regional Medical Center Jacksonville's emergency room entrance for ambulance crews. (Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star)

Regional Medical Center will close its Jacksonville campus June 30, the hospital announced Thursday morning, confirming whispers that had circulated all month.

The hospital’s board of directors, known as the Healthcare Authority of the City of Anniston, approved the move in a meeting Wednesday night. That came after weeks of rumors that predicted the move, rumors that hospital officials repeatedly denied.

“I’ve heard rumors that we’re going to close the hospital in two weeks or in June,” board chairman Billy Grizzard said May 9. “None of it is true.”

A Thursday morning news release announcing the closure quoted Grizzard citing volatility in the health care industry for the move.

“RMC’s Board and leadership team have carefully evaluated the most viable options for the future of our health system and believe that reallocating our resources and services will best serve residents of Calhoun County and surrounding communities,” the release quoted Grizzard as saying.

Louis Bass, CEO of RMC, said Thursday morning that administrators had been considering closing the hospital for some time.

“We’ve been looking at it seriously over the last year,” Bass said.

The roughly 140 employees at the Jacksonville hospital will get help from RMC finding other employment within the RMC Health System, Thursday’s announcement said. Some units at the Jacksonville campus will relocate to the main campus in Anniston or to Stringfellow Memorial Hospital, which RMC operates, also in Anniston.

The hospital property will be donated to Jacksonville State University for use as classroom space and campus housing, according to the release.

Bass said that keeping the hospital open wasn’t viable because of declining patient volume, poor federal reimbursements for services and rising costs.

“The hospital was not profitable when it was sold by the city and it was not profitable when we bought it,” Bass said. “We made significant changes when we bought it, but the hospital does not make money.”

RMC Jacksonville is a 104-bed, acute-care hospital with a 24-hour emergency room. Since buying the hospital, RMC has made several changes. Administrators closed the intensive care unit in 2013 and ended OB-GYN services in 2014, citing high cost and lack of demand.

Editorial: Rumors false, then true, about RMC Jacksonville

Meanwhile, officials added beds at RMC Jacksonville in 2016 to treat more elderly patients with mental health and behavioral symptoms.

Long-term problems

RMC announced in December 2012 that it was buying the hospital, then known as Jacksonville Medical Center. The hospital was previously owned by private Tennessee-based firm Capella Healthcare. RMC refused for months to disclose the $6 million sale price.

“That hospital has never been profitable,” Grizzard said in a Thursday morning interview. “Had we not bought it, Capella would have shut the doors.”

The hospital opened in 1976 as Jacksonville Hospital under ownership of the city of Jacksonville. The city sold the hospital in 1996 for $15.3 million and used the money to help build a new campus for Jacksonville High School.

At the time of the purchase, RMC officials said having the extra beds and patient volume would help increase revenue. RMC bought the operating contract for Stringfellow Memorial Hospital in Anniston last year for the same reason.

Bass said administrators were meeting with employees Thursday to talk about their options.

“Between now and June 30, we will will try to hire and take care of as many of them as we can,” Bass said. “But there’s no set number at this time.”

Bass also said that RMC would also help employees find jobs with other companies if possible.

Jacksonville Mayor Johnny Smith said he was disappointed to learn of the hospital’s closing.

“I think it’s been a good asset for the community,” Smith said. “But of course, I understand their side of it, too, that they can’t keep losing money.”

Smith said he was concerned about job losses and hoped most of the employees could find work in the RMC system.

“I hope most will still get jobs and continue to live a shop here,” he said.

Side effects

Keith Kadle, interim fire chief for the Jacksonville Fire Department, said losing the hospital would place a greater burden on the department’s ambulance services and the residents who use them.

“We’ve always had Jacksonville hospital to fall back on for our most immediate care needs,” Kadle said. “For our cardiac and super critical patients who I think couldn’t make it to Anniston, the Jacksonville hospital is critical.”

Kadle said it typically takes about five minutes to take patients from the city to RMC Jacksonville. An ambulance trip to Anniston can take up to 25 minutes, while a drive to the next nearest hospital in Gadsden might take 35 to 40 minutes, Kadle said.

Every minute counts when it comes to critical patients, Kadle said.

And the longer trips mean ambulances can’t take as many calls as in the past, he said.

“Our concern is every time we transport now we’ll go to Gadsden or Anniston ... the longer transport time equals an ambulance that is out of service for a longer period of time.” he said.

Councilman Jimmy Harrell said he’s upset about the hospital closing and its effect on the city and residents, but also about how RMC handled the situation.

Harrell said the city appoints two members to the RMC board, yet he didn’t officially learn about the closing until a meeting he had with hospital officials on Tuesday. Harrell said he’d heard the rumors in recent weeks like others in the community.

“I can’t see why this information can’t be passed on to the council to keep us informed,” Harrell said. “The manner in which this was handled, I believe, was not the way to do it.”

Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.