Gulf Coast Medical Center Closes Post-Katrina Side Effects Took Toll on HMA Hospital
Gulf Coast Medical Center Closes Post-Katrina Side Effects Took Toll on HMA Hospital
The New Year will begin without the Gulf Coast Medical Center.

Never recovering financially after Hurricane Katrina, the 189-bed hospital, located near Debuys Road and U.S. Hwy 90, shut the doors to the emergency room on Oct. 8 to consolidate operations with its sister facility, Biloxi Regional Medical Center. Gulfport Memorial Hospital in Gulfport, not affiliated with the hospital, also picked up emergency room patients.

The medical center closed Jan. 1, with long-term plans to relocate north of Interstate 10 and possibly sell its 26 acres of beachfront property.

Even though hospital officials declined to disclose the exact financial loss, Gulf Coast Medical Center CEO Brenda Whitwell said the inpatient load dropped 40 percent after the category four storm that ravaged the coastal area and displaced thousands of coastal residents on Aug. 29, 2005. The new plan calls for “following the population shift” northward, yet details on a new hospital were not discussed other than to say the project could take up to five years.

“Our focus in the next 60 days is to take care of our employees and physicians,” she said on Nov. 1, when the hospital’s 359 employees learned of the closing. Some medical employees will relocate to Biloxi Regional, or one of the other facilities owned by parent company, Naples, Fla.-based Health Management Associates.

“Being so close to the beach, our facility was ravaged by the storm, and was never fully operational for months,” said Whitwell. “The new location and new physical plant should allow us to offer full services whether we face a natural or man-made disaster.”

HMA acquired Gulf Coast Medical Center in June 2006 from Tenet Healthcare Corporation, but investors upset with the hospital’s poor earnings and HMA’s dividend payout and subsequent change in bad debt policy that caused the share price to fall sued the company for actions they indicate artificially inflated stock prices. Two HMA hospitals in Arkansas are for sale.

John Merriwether, vice president of financial relations, was adamant about saying HMA never bought the hospital with the intention of consolidating operations with Biloxi Regional so quickly. “We never would’ve tried to run it for 17 months,” he pointed out.

The Gulf Coast healthcare community has been hit especially hard since Hurricane Katrina. Hospitals have scrambled to recruit physicians, particularly surgeons, and other medical personnel. Insurance costs across the board have escalated, leaving many local residents, including an influx of immigrants, without insurance.

“After the storm, Gulf Coast Medical Center and Keesler Medical Center were out of service for quite some time,” said Whitwell. “Biloxi Regional was able to provide a full range of services for the entire community then, so they can certainly handle the volume now.”

HMA has had a presence in Mississippi since 1990, operating 11 facilities throughout the state and employing more than 5,500 healthcare professionals before the Gulf Coast Medical Center closure. Every year, HMA Mississippi delivers nearly 8,000 babies — that’s one in five children born in the state — and handles more than 200,000 annual emergency room visits, more than 50,000 annual inpatient admissions, more than 60,000 inpatient and outpatient surgical procedures, and nearly 400,000 annual outpatient visits.
Nationwide, the healthcare management company is a leading operator of acute care hospitals, managing 59 hospitals in 15 mainly southern states. HMA chairman William Schoen has described the company as the “Wal-Mart of the hospital business” because, like Sam Walton’s empire, HMA thrives in rural America.

Even though Gulf Coast Medical Center will shut down, some of its peripheral services will remain in place, including The Gulf Coast Center for Breast Care, Gulf Coast Sleep Laboratory, the Gulf Oaks 45-bed psychiatric facility serving teens and adults, and physicians’ offices on campus. The off-site Cedar Lake Diagnostic Imaging Center will continue to provide healthcare services to the public.

When Gulf Coast Medical Center’s emergency room closed, the Mississippi State Department of Health confirmed it was a voluntary action and not because of any regulatory action, stating, “The Department was advised that emergency services of Gulf Coast Medical Center and Biloxi Regional Hospital were being consolidated to provide more effective and efficient healthcare services to Gulf Coast residents.”

January 2008