At long last, the Lawrence Memorial Hospital board will be asked to make a decision on partnership offers made nearly a year ago.
Jim Stokes marched to the front of the auditorium in Lawrence Memorial Hospital, but he stopped short of the podium with the microphone because his booming message at a public hearing needed no amplification.
"I think we've got a hospital to really, truly be proud of," the 72-year-old Lawrence retiree said in a clear, resonant tenor voice to a small crowd of about 40 people. "And I for one would hate to see us sold out to a bunch of foreigners."
It was a thundering near-climax to a community debate that had simmered for nearly two years, beginning in February 1994 when the "foreigners" came to town.
Columbia Health Care Corp., headquartered in Tennessee, announced then that it would be the main tenant in a new medical office building under construction at Clinton Parkway and Kasold Drive and that it would offer urgent and occupational health care services that would compete directly against LMH, the city-owned nonprofit hospital at 325 Maine.
Columbia, which through a corporate merger later became Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp., started construction on a second building with outpatient surgery suites and diagnostic labs, and in February 1995, the company met with Lawrence Memorial Hospital's nine-member board of trustees to spell out what it wanted: a 50-50 partnership with LMH.
Without a partnership, Columbia executives told the Journal-World, the company would build a new hospital in Lawrence that would compete head to head against LMH.
Two nonprofit hospital groups centered in Kansas City weighed in the next month with partnership offers of their own, and for the past 10 months, the board's decision has been looming.
"It has seemed like it's been a long, drawn-out process," said Janice Early-Weas, the hospital's director of community relations. "A lot of people thought Columbia would come in and make their presentation, and there would be some immediate decision, and we'd all get on with things."
Instead, the hospital board labored over the decision. It met privately with doctors and paid consultants more than $67,000 to evaluate all of the proposals. It wasn't until October 1995 that the board's newly elected chairman, Howard Mossberg, announced that he wanted a decision on Jan. 17, 1996.
"It's always hard when you're in any kind of prolonged period of uncertainty," Early-Weas said. "There are employees who are very fearful of what could happen here, and no amount of reassurance is making them feel any differently, because you can't make any promises to them."
That's because the hospital industry itself is in a historical transition period. Hospitals across the country are merging, closing or forming joint ventures with other hospitals because of intense pressure to keep costs down.
In recent months, Columbia has announced layoffs at two of its hospitals in Kansas -- Overland Park Regional Medical Center and Wesley Medical Center in Wichita -- and financial analysts have told the LMH board that layoffs and price hikes would be likely in Lawrence if control of LMH were sold to Columbia.
"This is a pretty scary business to be in these days," Early-Weas said. "All you have to do is look all around you to see what's going on in facilities just right down the road from us."
Stokes, a retired DuPont manager who has lived in Lawrence since 1965, understands that hospitals will need alliances and partnerships to survive.
But he hasn't yet heard any good argument to give up control of the hospital that has been run for the benefit of Lawrence's residents since the 1920s.
"The thing I'm mostly arguing for is to maintain local control of the hospital," said Stokes, who is a member of the board of directors of the hospital's endowment association, which collects contributions to purchase equipment for the hospital.
Most of the several dozen citizens and LMH employees and volunteers who turned out for four hearings organized by the hospital's board last month and this also spoke against the two partnership offers still under consideration: Columbia's and a less specific proposal from a group of hospitals that includes the Kansas University Medical Center.
A third proposal was eliminated from contention in the fall, because the group had internal management problems.
David Nevill, chief operating officer of Columbia's operations in Lawrence, has repeatedly said that issues such as local control, indigent care and anything else that may be of concern to the community, are open to adjustment if the hospital is willing to enter into negotiations.
On Wednesday, the long-silent LMH board may finally indicate whether it will enter into such negotiations or if it will reject outright either or both partnership offers.
"We may have worn this issue out," Mossberg said last week. "We've been at it a long time. It's time to move on."
The board's meeting, at the hospital on Wednesday, starts at 7 p.m.