Local doctors look toward reopening River West hospital

DEIDRE CRUSE, Governmental Reporter

The group of local doctors who purchased River West Medical Center building shortly before a federal bankruptcy court forced the facility to close May 15 has hired an international hospital consultant to determine the feasibility reopening the local facility.

Robert E. Galloway, president of Galloway Consulting Group, told the POST/SOUTH last week he arrived in Plaquemine last Wednesday and had only started to gather a process that will take at least six months to complete.

“The doctors clearly want their hospital back,” said Galloway, who owned River West form 1984 to 1996.  “...The question is how to get the hospital reopened.”

Much of much of the answer, of course, hinges on economics.

“Is there enough support for a small community hospital,” he said, is a key question.

Westside Physicians L.L.C., the group of doctors that hired Galloway, bought the hospital building, but not its equipment, the consultant said. The expensive medical equipment would have to be replaced for the hospital to qualify for new state operating licenses.

The doctors would have to find funding for equipment and for the inevitable initial losses on payroll and other expenses during the start-up period, Galloway said.

He met briefly with Plaquemine Mayor Mark A. “Tony” Gulotta and parish Chief Administrative Officer Edward A. “Lucky” Songy Jr. at Nottoway after the Iberville Chamber of Commerce meeting last week.

After the previous River West operators were forced into bankruptcy court early this year, there was some discussion of proposing a hospital district supported by taxes. Other parishes use that method to keep their community hospitals open. Galloway said he wasn't sure that was a possibility.

“It's a stretch considering the School Board tax,” he said.

Voters approved a 31-mill property tax to raise school system salaries and build new facilities. It was collected in December for the first time.

Galloway said he plans to see if one of the Baton Rouge hospitals would be interested in helping to reopen the facility, to check on the availability of state or federal funds, and to talk to major local employers, including those in the chemical industry.

At the same time the local doctors bought the hospital, they also formed Iberville Health Services (his) to take over the hospital's operations from River West L.P., which was forced into bankruptcy, and Shiloh Health Services.

Jerry F. Pepper, the court-appointed patient care ombudsman, forced the hospital to close after contract emergency room physicians who hadn't been paid for some time pulled out. Pepper said River West had been operating as “little more than an emergency room.”

Pepper said the bankruptcy court approved his to operate the facility after it told the court it had $302,000, but that the complete amount had not materialized.

“I have worked in situations involving bankruptcy before. There are ways around that,” the consultant said, admitting it was complicated.

“I will see what I can do with my 45 years of running hospitals,” Galloway said, describing River West's closure as a “shock to the vicinity.”