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Council Backs Out of “Handshake” Agreement

While only one item was on the agenda for last Saturday’s called meeting of the Hazlehurst City Council, the time it took to discuss it clocked in at nearly two hours. The council met to talk about last-minute lease options on the former medical office of Dr. Sidney P. Johnson, a building the city recently purchased after Johnson’s retirement.
Mayor Bayne Stone led off the discussions that included, among others, Ward One Councilman Dywane Johnson, Ward Two Councilman John Ramay, and Ward Four Councilman John Bloodworth. Ward Three Councilman Eric Griffin was working and could not attend. Tammy Mims, CEO of Jeff Davis Hospital; Dr. Jason Laney, the hospital’s medical director; and County Commissioner Brad Crews of the Whitehead District, who is also a non-voting member of the Jeff Davis Hospital Authority, were also in attendance.
The city had entered into what was termed several times a “gentlemen’s agreement” or a “handshake agreement” to lease the Johnson building to a medical provider headquartered in Greene County and who has offices in Appling and Telfair counties. But Mims and Laney, a few weeks before the meeting but after the verbal agreement, had informed Stone that the hospital authority also wanted a chance to lease the building, and the meeting was called in part so the council could consider their request.
Mims cited that the hospital has worked “very, very hard over the past 2-1/2 years,” but that it still struggles with outmigration of patients who go outside of the county for medical services. She and Laney said they are working with several doctors, including a cardiologist, a surgeon, and an infectious diseases physician, to relocate either all or part of their practices to Hazlehurst in efforts to keep patients in the medical community.
The issue, both pointed out, has been the lack of availability of office space for medical providers, and Johnson’s office could be an asset to the hospital. Mims, Laney, and Crews each said that they were also concerned that Greene County provider may not support the hospital and could send patients, lab work, and tests to other facilities outside of Jeff Davis County.
Near the beginning of the meeting, Ramay pointed out that the city had already entered into the verbal agreement, although a formal contract had not been signed.
But then Bloodworth explained that he had been a proponent of the provider coming in because the group had “assured” the council it would be a “promoter of the hospital,” with his adding, “When we make a handshake agreement with somebody, I feel we need to honor that.”
Mims stated that she and Stone had spoken before the holidays, and that she asked him to not do anything with the Johnson building until they could speak further. She also said that she had reached out on several occasions to the Appling County office of the provider to discuss the matter but had not received a return call. Mims also pointed out that the hospital’s medical staff would have to approve privileges for them to admit patients.
Bloodworth said that in the past week the company’s workers had been in Johnson’s building doing work to prepare for opening Monday and seeing patients. If the city were to turn around and lease the building to the hospital, he told the council, “I would have trouble sleeping at night because it wouldn’t be the right thing to do.”
Ramay also agreed with Bloodworth, saying that while a handshake is not a contract, it’s still an agreement.
Laney then spoke, saying he had “personal experience” with provider, and that his primary concern was to make sure they would support the hospital and not send patients out of the county to other hospitals.
“In the last few years, our hospital has grown,” Laney told the council. “I feel our citizens are in good hands in our hospital now.”
Natasha Bennett of the city attorney’s office of Smith and Bennett then pointed out that the unsigned lease contract, one that she said was “not a normal lease agreement,” that she and City Attorney Ken Smith had drawn, would “require” and “encourage” the company to refer patients to Jeff Davis Hospital, and further that if they were found “acting adverse” to the hospital, the city would have the right to terminate the agreement.
Laney then again asked the city to consider leasing the building to the hospital since there was no written agreement with the company, but Stone reiterated that, “A man’s word is his bond. With that handshake, that bond was made.”
That’s when Bloodworth said that he wasn’t aware that the hospital wanted to lease the building until after the verbal agreement was already made.
Johnson then suggested that the company needed to meet with Mims to discuss working together.
But Mims then told the council that she and Laney had been diligently recruiting physicians and was working closely with one who had committed to practicing in Hazlehurst if a building were to come available. That was part of the reason the hospital wanted the Johnson building.
That’s when Bloodworth, after listening to Mims and Laney plead their case to lease the building, said that he would support the hospital rather than the Greene County company.
Stone then called a company representative, who was already working at the Johnson building next door to City Hall, to step over and speak to the council.
Ramay asked the representative, who has asked to remain unnamed, for a “verbal commitment” that the company would be “supporting and sending patients” to the hospital.
The representative explained that the company already sends patients to the hospital, and that “100 percent” of all Medicare and Medicaid labs would also be sent to the hospital. She also said that future patients could be admitted under the normal rotation of Drs. Laney, Frank Bixler, and Tonya Fordham or their own personal physician, adding, “The only thing that we would ask, if they manage our patient in the hospital, that they recommend the patient would follow up with their primary care doctor.”
She also explained that she had been in contact with Jeff Davis Hospital COO Robin Crosby and was to send her required information about the company when it was ready to open.
After she left the meeting, and after more lengthy discussions, Stone asked for a motion that the council proceed with the contract with the company, adding that if it wasn’t fulfilled according to the terms set forth in it, the contract would be “terminated.” When Ramay made the motion at the mayor’s request, it died for lack of a second.
That’s when Johnson offered the second motion of the day that the company meet with Jeff Davis Hospital’s board and, among other points, have “certain guidelines and qualifications” that they would have to follow. But again, no second was offered, and that motion, too, died.
After more discussions and with Mims once again pointing out that the hospital has a physician ready to move in, and with Bloodworth stating the obvious that the meeting had become “complicated,” Mims said that she would make a personal commitment that the hospital authority would approve a lease agreement with the city if the city would back out of its verbal agreement.
Bloodworth then told the council, “If she’s willing to do that, I’ll make the motion to do it.”
Bloodworth then officially made a third motion to enter into a tentative agreement to lease the property to the hospital, with Ramay seconding. In the discussion phase, Ramay asked what the liability to the city would be “over the handshake agreement,” with Bennett pointing out that it was not binding under Georgia law. Bennett also asked for a confirmation that the hospital would meet the same terms as the city was requesting. Before the council could vote on that motion, Ramay then made a fourth motion to table the third motion until after Stone had spoken further with the company. That motion was unanimous.
Stone then made the fifth and final motion of the day, asking that the council authorize him to speak to the company representative to let her know “at this time, the contract is in limbo.” It, too, passed unanimously.
Within moments, after almost two hours in the rare Saturday meeting, the meeting was adjourned.

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