Hospital sale 

Win for low-income locals

Last week's announcement that Community Medical Center intends to pull a planned $10 million contribution to the University of Montana is being lauded as a major victory for low-income residents.

"This is a big win for the impoverished people in our community," says Dale Woolhiser, an outspoken opponent of the UM donation.

In March 2014, the Community Medical Center Board of Directors announced its intention to sell the nonprofit hospital to the for-profit Regional Care of Tennessee and Billings Clinic. The $74.7 million deal, which included a plan for distributing hospital assets, landed on the desk of Montana Attorney General Tim Fox for approval.

Montana law mandates that proceeds from a nonprofit liquidation benefit charitable organizations that closely reflect the dissolved organization's mission. In January, Fox authorized the hospital sale. He refrained, however, from signing off on the asset allocation plan, stating it needed additional scrutiny.

The board's initial proposal called for creation of a new Community Hospital Legacy Foundation that would receive roughly $64.2 million to provide grants to regional entities dedicated to improving health care. One of the most controversial provisions of the board's proposal called for allocating $10 million to the University of Montana College of Health Professions and Biomedical Sciences. The grant was slated to lay the groundwork for a new physician assistant program, provide scholarships and expand the Skaggs Building.

While the CMC board said the university donation would go a long way toward training rural medical providers, thereby filling a regional void, locals who contributed time and money to the hospital over the years, including Woolhiser, maintained the proceeds should directly provide health care to people in need, not pay for educational expenses.

Monica Weisul, who once helped raise money for CMC and is married to the hospital's former medical director, echoes Woolhiser's concerns. "There are so many ways that money can be used, rather than putting it into a building," she says.

Weisul, Woolhiser and others argued further that the UM contribution appeared to be a conflict of interest. Three members of the outgoing CMC board have ties to the university, including UM Alumni Foundation director Bill Johnston.

In response to questions about a perceived conflict, CMC Board of Directors Chairman Scott Hacker says the UM-affiliated board members abstained from voting on the school contribution. While Hacker acknowledges the opposition to the UM donation, he maintains public pressure didn't contribute to the newly convened board's decision to withdraw the UM donation.

Rather, Hacker says the new body, CMC Missoula Inc., came to believe through discussions with Fox's office that the original plan was not as thoroughly conceived as it could have been.

"(The attorney general's office) did have the recommendation that we take some more time," Hacker said. "That seemed to make some really good sense. ... We just never really had the time to focus on some of the things that needed to be done."

Hacker says the board now intends to place the $10 million originally intended for UM into the Community Hospital Legacy Foundation along with the rest of the sale proceeds, pending Fox's approval. Foundation beneficiaries could include the Montana Health Care Foundation, Hacker says. MHCF was established in 2013 with proceeds from the sale of the nonprofit Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Montana, and focuses on increasing the quality and accessibility of health care to residents in need across the state.

Regardless of what prompted the board to reconsider, Weisul and Woolhiser believe the change of heart stands to fill a significant void in local area medical care. "There are a bunch of impoverished people in Missoula who didn't have voices in this whole deal or they didn't know," Woolhiser says. "And I think they are the big winners."

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