Monroe County commissioner John Ambrose demanded more information from commissioner Jim Ham on Tuesday on his efforts to save Monroe County Hospital. But Ham said he was sworn to secrecy as negotiations with Navicent continue in a “last ditch effort” to save the Forsyth hospital.

The dispute started with Ambrose, the District 3 commissioner, took exception to the county’s $23,000 payment to Monroe County Hospital that appeared on the county’s accounts payable check list on Tuesday. Ambrose said he didn’t want the county to give MCH anymore money until there was a resolution concerning the hospital’s proposed partnership with Macon’s Medical Center Navicent Health.

“Everybody raises Cain about the money we’ve spent on the county line, but this hospital is costing us a fortune,” Ambrose said. “And they’ve been nine months, and they haven’t gotten back with us. And then Mr. Ham comes in last week and said he’d get back with us and let us know something. I honestly don’t think Mr. Ham should be talking for the county on Hospital Authority dealings. And I think that we need to put a deadline on that Hospital Authority and Navicent. Thirty days or forty days for them to come up to us and explain what’s happening. We gave them a $2 million loan, and they said that was supposed to make the deal go quicker. Nothing’s happened. Now we’re fixing to pay them another $23,000 for a monthly expenditure. I just don’t feel right taking taxpayer money on something like that. They need to come up, and we need to put a deadline on them and let them come up and tell us what’s going on.”

Ham then told Ambrose the $23,000 was related to the county’s annual budgeted contribution to MCH for indigent care, not the Navicent loan.

“It doesn’t have anything to do with the loan,” Ham said.

Ambrose then told Ham he thinks the full commission board should have been involved in the Navicent dealings, and not exclusively Ham, who met privately in closed session with the Hospital Authority of Monroe County concerning the matter on April 25. Ham previously told commissioners he signed a non-disclosure agreement preventing him from revealing details of the ongoing contract negotiations.

Ham then said sharply to Ambrose: “I’m letting you talk because I like listening to you. But when you get through, I’ll try to answer some of your questions.”

Ham then mentioned a motion made in open session following the three-hour closed meeting on April 25 regarding the hospital’s deal with Navicent. Without revealing what the motion said, Ham then urged Ambrose to ask MCH CEO Kay Floyd for a copy of the April 25 Hospital Authority minutes (The Reporter obtained minutes from the April 25 meeting, and the motion pertaining to the matter vaguely read: “Agreement Outlined in Executive Session: Approved.”).

Ambrose then pointed out Ham’s comments at an April 19 commissioners’ meeting, saying he expected a decision to be reached on the Navicent deal at an April 20 meeting, at which point he would reveal more details to the other commissioners. Ambrose said he never heard anything from Ham.

Ham then raised his voice: “And this is the first meeting we’ve had since they (Hospital Authority) had their meeting. Do you understand that?”

Ambrose responded, “Call us on the phone or send us a text message and let us know something. We need to operate more than twice a month. This county can’t operate like we’re doing.”

As the argument continued, Ham asked Ambrose: “Do you want the hospital to close or stay open?”

Ambrose answered, “I want it to stay open if it makes money. But if we’re going to continue to pour money into it, no.”

Ham reminded Ambrose that the Navicent deal is the “last ditch effort to try to keep the hospital open.”

Ham said of the Hospital Authority: “They’ve got every issue resolved but one. . . They’ve got a hard job trying to keep that hospital open and trying to make sure that they’re doing a good deal when they do a deal, a deal that will be lasting in our county so that we’ll have health care for your grandchildren and my grandchildren and hopefully our great grandchildren. Rural hospitals can’t stay open by themselves. They’ve all got to affiliate. . . The only way we’re going to stay open in Monroe County is to affiliate with Navicent.”

Ham said he couldn’t discuss the single issue holding up the contract, but added, “It’s something that’s going to be beneficial to everybody in Monroe County. . . It’s going to end an active lawsuit that’s going on right now.”

Ambrose said he still wants to put a deadline on finalizing the deal, but Ham warned him that’s a bad idea.

“I think what you’re going to do if you do that is you’re going to put harnesses on their (Hospital Authority) negotiation ability with Navicent,” Ham said. “And what you’ve got is an 800-pound gorilla or a five-ton elephant, and we’re just a mouse. And they’re trying to get the best deal for the taxpayers of Monroe County to save the hospital. And not just for six months but for 60 years and grow the hospital. I wish that I could talk to you more about it.”

Ham then responded to Ambrose’s barbs about the secrecy of the negotiation process.

“You (Ambrose) almost insinuated that I’m trying to hide something from the rest of you,” Ham said. “I wasn’t jumping to try to participate in all this. I was asked to participate in it, and that’s been my role.”

Ambrose replied, “Don’t you think you have come back to us? We work as a board. We don’t work separately.”

Ham answered, “John, you don’t understand that everyone involved in it had to sign an agreement that they wouldn’t go out and say, ‘Joe Blow says they’re going to do this if they get that.’ Because then you don’t ever get an agreement. Everybody involved in the agreement has to deal with just the other side. And I don’t know all the intricacies of what they’ve done. I know a lot of them, but I don’t know them all. Because I don’t sit on the Hospital Authority. I don’t wanna sit on the Hospital Authority. But I can assure you as a lifelong resident, and hopefully my great grandchildren are going to be lifelong residents, I’ve got the best interest of Monroe County, and that’s the whole county, at heart. Not the hospital. Not the county commission. Not the garden club. Not the Rotary Club. Monroe County. And if you don’t believe that, then I’m just sorry. I’m sorry as I can be.”

Ambrose shot back: “I just would have thought it would’ve been more appropriate for our county commission chairman to be involved.”

Commission chairman Mike Bilderback then asked Ham if he could estimate when the deal could be completed.

Ham responded, “The ball is in their (Navicent) court. This is the last issue that they’re trying to work out. It will be done as quickly as they want it to happen. When I say, ‘they’, I’m talking about Navicent because Monroe County is ready.”

Bilderback then asked Ham whether Monroe County Hospital employees would be employed by Navicent if the contract is approved.

Ham answered, “They’re going to be theirs (Navicent). But there again, they’re going to make a presentation about everything they want to do to this board, whether it’s in open session or executive session first, and let y’all ask every any questions about it. . . And it’s taken a long time. But if you want something that’s going to be lasting. You can sign anything. But then you’re scratching your head a week later and saying, ‘My God, what did I agree to?’ We’re trying to be thorough and get everything that is long-lasting.”