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Competing plans to change medical care in Sharp County

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SHARP COUNTY, AR (KAIT) – Two competing plans could change the level of medical care available to residents in Sharp County.

At its meeting this week, the Sharp County Quorum Court heard about two proposals that would take the number of emergency rooms in the county from zero to two.

The justices of the peace agreed to hold a special election next spring so that voters can decide if they will support a sales tax to fund a new hospital and emergency room.

A separate plan faces fewer obstacles and does not require voter approval. This one would allow another emergency room to open in Sharp County at no cost to taxpayers.  

The White River Medical Complex in Cherokee Village opened in 2007, but announced Monday that it's now ready to turn its urgent care clinic into an emergency room open around the clock.

"The facility is ready to go for an emergency room," James Street, the facility administrator, said. "We've been waiting until the volumes were sufficient to justify the conversion to a full-blown emergency room that will be serviced by emergency-trained physicians 24/7."

Street said the clinic could become an ER within a week's time, but it still needs regulatory approval and a few cosmetic changes inside to make everything fully functional.

"This satellite emergency room will be totally financed by the White River Medical Center," Street explained. "We did not ask nor did we seek any tax support for it, so we're putting the financial resources of White River Medical Center behind this project."

He expects the ER to open sometime next spring. That's likely around the same time that voters will go to the polls in Sharp County to decide the fate of a 1.5-cent sales tax, which if approved would pay to build and run a new hospital in the county.

"The strength and the success of the community are based on four basic building blocks," Bob Evins said. "You've got to have good schools. You've got to have good churches, good banks; and you've got to have good health care. Without one of those four building blocks, it's very difficult for a community to grow and thrive like it needs to."

Evins claims Sharp County has suffered the most without a local hospital. That's why he joined other community leaders to form the Sharp County Hospital Foundation. The foundation's goal, he says, was to bring a medical facility back to the area after the previous one closed almost a decade ago.

On Monday the foundation members presented their final proposal to the quorum court. They would like to build a 40,000 square foot facility somewhere in the county that houses a hospital and emergency room. The price tag to build such a facility would cost around $12 million, according to Evins.

The foundation suggested that revenue from the 1.5-cent sales tax could fully fund construction as well as maintenance and upkeep of the facility. The justices agreed to hold a special election on March 11, 2014, where voters will decide whether they'll support the sales tax to pay for a hospital.

"In the foundation's opinion," Evins said, "[the hospital] is a very integral part of the success of the community. It's something that we need to get behind and get the community support."

The foundation, Evins said, conducted its own polling before making the proposal. He claims the results showed overwhelming support for not only bringing back a hospital to the area but also paying for it through a sales tax.

"The only way that we can move forward not just now but into the future with good health care," Evins said, "is for the people in the community to take the responsibility for it and control it themselves."

He said the foundation members are confident that the sales tax will pass based on their own analysis despite the White River Medical Complex announcing its intent to add an emergency room in Cherokee Village.

"I think that [an emergency room] is just one part of what's needed to give us good quality health care to the area," Evins said, "but in the final analysis, an emergency room is not a hospital."

After Region 8 News spoke to a few voters Tuesday in Sharp County, it seemed like many do not mind paying higher taxes if it means having a hospital in the area again.

"I take care of my elderly mom," Terrill Martin of Cherokee Village said, "and if there was an emergency, it'd be nice if I didn't have to drive to Jonesboro or Batesville."

"A lot of people have to go to Mountain Home or Batesville, and that's just a little far to go or Fulton County," Patti Dunlap said. "We really need something here for the people that's close."

"I think all you can really do to be fair to everybody," Beverly Rackley of Mammoth Spring said, "is to do a vote and let the voters decide."

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