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Hundreds show up for Barnwell Council meeting, protest regional hospital plan

Barnwell County hospital

Barnwell County residents spoke up at the County Council meeting Tuesday night about a decision that would move their local hospital to Denmark. (WRDW-TV / Sept. 13, 2011)

News 12 at 11 o'clock / Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2011

BARNWELL, S.C. -- Regional hospital plans are set to move forward in Barnwell after a heated County Council meeting Tuesday night.

Some people stood against the wall, some sat on the floor. Others just brought their own lawn chairs. All knew this would be a packed and very heated council meeting.

"I don't know what y'all are thinking," exclaimed one citizen.

Dozens of people spoke out against the Council's plan to sell Barnwell County Hospital. Dobbs Equity Partners LLC wants to purchase both Bamberg and Barnwell County hospitals, combine their services and rebuild an updated hospital facility in Denmark, S.C.

From CEOs to nurses, lawyers, patients, doctors, farmers, the mayor and even one state representative, citizens begged their council members to hold off on voting until they could hear more about the plans. Tuesday was the third and final reading of the new ordinance that would allow the hospital sale and eventual merger.

"They don't want this to happen! These are your people you are supposed to serve," said one citizen, addressing the council directly.

One main concern is the location of the new hospital in Denmark. Many say it would be too far, especially in an emergency. One woman used props to show she believes even the water in Denmark is not fit to host a hospital. She lives there and set two large jars of black and brown water on the podium in front of the crowd.

"We call this the Denmark tea, OK?" she said.

Citizens are also concerned with what would happen to the land and building where the hospital is currently located. Some suggest, at the very least, the facility should remain operating as an emergency center.

Nurse and Barnwell citizen Barbara Wilhelm spoke out, too.

"What is going to make [Dobbs Equity Partners LLC] get a set of specialists from Barnwell, a set of specialists from Bamberg to come into the little towns and stay?"

Wilhelm says they already struggle to attract and retain medical specialists in the area.

During the public forum, not one person spoke in favor of immediately moving forward with the new regional hospital plan vote.

Barnwell citizen Norman Bolen says all they wanted was to postpone the third reading and final vote for another few weeks.

"I think if the county would work with us, we could turn this thing around and make the [current] hospital work," Bolen said.

News 12 spoke with nurses and doctors who admit they have concerns with the current hospital, too; they say BCH has not seen major improvements in 60 years.

Councilman Keith Sloan commented before the vote, saying the council took its decision very seriously. He also pointed out that the location of the new hospital is not necessarily finalized. But none of the council members or attorneys present could comment on the specifics of the plan because of a non-disclosure agreement.

John Zawacki is the Barnwell city administrator but says he attended the meeting as a concerned citizen, not as a city employee.

"It's very frustrating," he said. "I mean there are ways this could have been handled where the public was informed, and it just didn't happen."

Several other speakers questioned the transparency of the plan and expressed concerns over how quickly the plan had moved forward without input from citizens. Sloan says they conducted surveys and consulted experts about what was best for the hospital and county medically and financially.

Council members voted as scheduled, opting not to postpone the plan any further despite pleas from the nearly 300 people in attendance.

And it was four against three in favor of the new regional hospital. Council Chairman Travis Black, Councilman Charles Lowell Jowers Sr., Councilman Keith Sloan and Executive Vice Chairman Freddie Houston Sr. voted to approve the ordinance. Councilman Harold Buckmon, Councilman David Kenner and Councilman Joe Smith voted against the new ordinance. The majority vote means the contract and deal with Dobbs Equity Partners LLC will move forward.

James Mosteller, Barnwell County's hospital attorney, says the plans could be finalized and signed as soon as the end of this week. He admits the contract will likely involve Barnwell County Hospital filing for bankruptcy. He could not comment on exactly how much and for how long the county would pay Dobbs Equity to take over ownership. He says this plan is truly the best thing for the county.

Bamberg County Hospital has already filed bankruptcy. Allendale County was originally involved in the regional hospital plan but has since backed out. Now it's just Barnwell and Bamberg.

News 12 will continue to keep you updated as the details of the regional facility unfold.

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