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Hospital system awaiting county decision on financial assistance

LAWRENCEVILLE - The financial future of the Gwinnett Health System still lies in the hand of the Board of Commissioners, more than six months after a task force laid out options for helping the ailing hospitals.

The answer could come in the next few weeks, officials said, bringing a sigh of relief from hospital system Chairman Wayne Sikes.

Deputy County Administrator Mike Comer said the county has been pulling financial information and getting advice since a study committee released its findings in March.

The citizen committee recommended the county help the system, which has hospitals in Lawrenceville and Duluth, because the county's growing population and expanding demographics are creating financial difficulties. Options include giving the hospital some money from the county budget, allowing the system to use the county's high bond rating or the unlikely recourse of raising taxes.

"We're examining their business plan, their demand for service," Comer said. "We're not consumed by this, but we've been busy."

Officials said the county has paid a financial analyst $13,000 to help determine the effects of each option on the hospital and the county government.

"We've been deliberate. We've done a fair amount of work," he said. "We're not on anybody's timetable except our own."

Earlier this month, Sikes announced that the system would move ahead with a $50 million expansion plan to the overcrowded Gwinnett Medical Center in Lawrenceville.

"I don't know that they are being slow. I am very impressed that they are being thorough," Sikes said. "We can't continue to wait. We've got to move on. We're at the point where doing nothing is as risky as moving forward."

Sikes said the system is working on paperwork to submit to the state Department of Community Health for the expansion, but that doesn't mean he no longer wants the county's help.

"They'll tell us when they're ready," he said.

Last week, state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, encouraged the county to help out with the hospital's situation.

During an informal meeting between legislators and commissioners, Unterman said the county should help the public institution along with the new state college located in Lawrenceville.

"The county can't support everything, but there are areas where there is a fiduciary responsibility," the former nurse said. "I think the university and the hospital are basic structures of our society that make Gwinnett County better. To have a good quality of life, we have to help these structures."

Comer said the county's analysis is nearly complete, and the information will be presented to the Board of Commissioners before the end of the year. The topic will likely come up during a board retreat in November, he noted.

This week, during a New York meeting with bond rating agencies, the hospital situation, was mentioned, but County Administrator Jock Connell said the issue was not fully discussed. "The topic came up. It was on a list of issues facing the county," he explained.

Both Comer and Commission Chairman Charles Bannister said the system's change in leadership may have an impact on the decision.

Since the March presentation, CEO Frank Rinker was fired and still has not been replaced.

As a past hospital board member, Bannister said he didn't want to give an impression that his mind is made up.

"I want it to be whatever the study says it is," he said. "We're just not there yet. It hasn't been ruled out of line. There's been little discussion so far."