WTOC Investigates: How much money does Chatham County contribute to Memorial Health?

SAVANNAH, GA (WTOC) - If you live in South Georgia, your access to Level 1 trauma care and neonatal services are in jeopardy.

Memorial Health is one of five hospitals in the state and the only in our region with the highest accreditation level for critical care.

Over the years, Memorial has been losing money as the health care industry continues to evolve.

In a WTOC investigation, we found those other trauma centers are better off financially because they receive millions from their local municipalities. Meanwhile, Chatham County has not given Memorial Health any money in more than 20 years.

Chatham County has actually been giving millions of dollars to other health organizations. Meanwhile, the hospital has been desperately searching for a financial partnership after Novant Health backed out, blaming the Chatham County Hospital Authority for overstepping their boundaries.

But if they can't find a new partner, thousands in this 35 county region will be impacted.

It's double the trouble in this Brunswick household. Ashley Brooks is the mom of fraternal twins who recently celebrated their second birthday. She says it's hard to believe it's been two years since they were in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit in Savannah.

"We went to the hospital thinking I was going into labor, and in fact, I was at 32 weeks. So they put me in an ambulance and sent me to Memorial because they have the highest level of care needed," said Brooks.

Brooks knew carrying twins came with the risk of delivering early, which also meant they would need to be at a hospital with a NICU facility. Memorial was the closest option. In fact, it's the only option for folks south of Macon and Augusta.

But Memorial's NICU services and Level 1 trauma center are now threatened by rising health care costs, indigent care and less revenue. The hospital was depending on a financial partnership with Novant Health last year but they pulled out of the multi-million-dollar deal blaming the Chatham County Hospital Authority for overstepping their boundaries.

Tensions between Memorial Health's board and the Hospital Authority have only continued to grow since.

Sources tell me right now the hospital has three financial options. They can either change their mission as a non-profit, find a financial partner or get money from Chatham County.

WTOC's Elizabeth Rawlins asked, "Y'all are trying to find a partnership to save the hospital. This could be an opportunity to say, y'all could be chipping in."

"It's really a mischaracterization to say that. Chatham County has done a number of things to support the hospital," replied former chair of the Chatham County Hospital Authority, Don Waters.

But 159 counties rely on these five Level 1 trauma centers to handle the "worst-of-the-worst" cases, in addition to providing indigent for those who don't have insurance. Most of these hospitals receive funding from their local county government.

Grady Memorial Health in Atlanta receives more than $80 million a year. In 2016, Fulton County gave more than $60 million and DeKalb County gave more than $20 million.

But Memorial Health hasn't received a dime in more than 20 years.

WTOC's Elizabeth Rawlins asked, "what's the reason why the county has never given the hospital a dime? You've got Grady who gets $80 million a year."

"Oh come on! Are you new in town?" replied Chatham County Commission Chairman Al Scott.

"No, I'm not new in town."

"When the county took on the refinancing of the Memorial debt. It was supposed to free up $26 million in reserve that they had to hold in reserve to satisfy the obligations of the previous bondholders. So think about this, they had $26 million. They had specific things they were supposed to do with that $26 million. I don't think they've all been done and I won't get into the details," said Scott.

But WTOC sources tell us that one-time lump sum was used for their expansion projects. Hardly comparable to funding that's awarded year after year.

In the meantime, commissioners have awarded almost $18 million to the Curtis V. Cooper Health Clinic and the Chatham County Health Department in the last four years according to budget records.

Commissioners also had no problem spending $300,000 tax dollars to audit Memorial Health for the second time this year.

"They had a financial audit. We were looking for something more than that. Not only were we looking at the hospital but we were looking at the hospital authority board and recommendations on how to make the hospital profitable," Scott said.

Some commissioners calling it a "forensic audit", which means it could be used in a lawsuit.

"Was the purpose of this audit to be used in a lawsuit?"

"No. I don't know where such a question would come from," replied Waters.

"Chatham County Commission meetings."

"I don't attend those meetings so I don't know what you're talking about. I don't report to them," Waters responded.

But just days after Waters announced at a hospital authority meeting that auditors were wrapping up, Memorial Health CEO Maggie Gill announced she was stepping down.

"So, y'all weren't looking for reasons to push Maggie out?"

We don't control that. Mrs. Gill works for the operating board, not the hospital authority. She doesn't work for the county commission, so we have no means of pushing her out," said Scott.

The actual findings of that report still haven't been released, but for folks in the 35 county area, it doesn't really matter.

What does matter? Family.

Mothers, like Ashley Brooks, are only worried about the safety and security of her family.

"We travel Interstate 95 and 16 frequently - seems like every weekend now - but if something terrible were to happen and we don't have Memorial to go to and there's not an immediate Level 1 trauma center to go to, it's frightening," Brooks said.

She says it's frightening to think local tax dollars are not protecting anyone in this 35 county region.

"I think that's the number one way you can support something, and when a community sees that you can support something with your money, it's something everyone can rally behind," Brooks said.

The former CFO at Memorial wrote in the paper last week, blaming all of this on local politics. Saying as long as the hospital authority is as involved as they are, the hospital will flounder.

We also confronted Chatham County Commission Chairman Al Scott about the accusations. He denies politics having anything to do with the current issues.

We will continue to cover the future of Memorial Health as it searches for a new CEO.

To read past stories about Memorial Health, please see below:

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