Ameris gets approval for hospital land

........................................................................................................................................................................................

The city of Belen is one step closer to ending a hard-fought process to get a hospital built within the city limits.

The Belen City Council approved a measure Monday that would award a lease agreement to an out-of-state company interested in building and managing a hospital on the city's west side.

The council accepted a recommendation from an evaluation committee convened to determine if the company's response to a request for proposal, issued Aug. 1, met the specifications outlined in the request.

Tennessee-based Ameris Management Services, LLC, was the only company to respond to the city's RFP, by the Sept. 16 cut-off date. City officials said they approved the plan based on both the company's financial and work plan, experience, management and references.

This means Ameris Management has been given the green light to lease a parcel of city-owned land to construct, equip, staff and manage a full-service hospital on Christopher Road, near Interstate 25.

According to the evaluation committee's recommendation, Ameris Management is responsible for obtaining and submitting a performance bond equal to 130 percent of the estimated cost of building, staffing and managing the hospital.

Besides the bond, the company must also submit a nonprofit certification as evidence the hospital will operate as a nonprofit.

Belen City Councilor Jerah Cordova said he is happy to see the proposed project moving forward, and he is confident Ameris Management will work fast and hard to get the project underway.

"Over the three years Ameris Management has been working with the city to develop the hospital, they have proven themselves more than capable of constructing and managing a hospital," Cordova said.

Next year will mark three years since Ameris entered the picture at the city's request to conduct a $49,999 feasibility study on the property for the project to determine if it could be done.

In addition to the city funds, Ameris Management Vice President of Business Development Frank Schupp said his company has poured nearly $250,000 into making sure it did what was necessary to gain the evaluation committee's recommendation.

Schupp said the company, which specializes in building and managing rural hospitals, believes it is inconceivable that a county so large doesn't have a medical facility to treat its residents.

"There are hardly any counties in the country with a population of 75,000 people that doesn't have a hospital," Schupp said. "The success and failure of a hospital is determined on the physicians and we have had several physicians showing an interest to work in the completed Valencia County community hospital."

Evaluation committee member Jan Johnson said she supports the project because "it's an opportunity to focus on providing health care to the people of Valencia County."

She added that she admires the city of Belen's tenacity "in spite of the very difficult and vicious criticism they faced over the years."

"The whole thing has been the most politically divisive situation I have ever seen," Johnson added.

That is because both the city of Belen and the village of Los Lunas have been embroiled in a fierce competition over who will have access to the approximately $20 million in county property tax dollars to fund two competing hospital projects.

Belen city officials want the money to help operate and maintain its proposed hospital project in partnership with Ameris Management LLC.

On the other hand, Los Lunas officials want the money for a hospital project developed and built by Oklahoma-based Miller Architecture in the village.

During a July Valencia County Commission meeting, commissioners voted 3-2 to approve an agreement that would allow Belen to chose a health care provider for the planned hospital project.

According to the proposed agreement between the county and Belen, the county agrees to execute a health care facilities contract with the provider chosen by the city: if the city issues an RFP for a provider to operate and maintain a hospital on the Belen site that includes the health-care facilities contract.

The health care provider must also include a financing plan for the construction and equipping of the hospital facility.

To date, there have been several court actions filed in an attempt to dictate which municipality would receive the funds. In August, village attorneys filed a lawsuit asking the courts to issue an injunction that would deem the agreement between the county and Belen invalid.

The village claims the county shirked its responsibilities by allowing the city of Belen to choose a health care provider.

Earlier this month, nearly 140 Valencia County residents filed a motion asking the court to allow them to join the lawsuit arguing that as residents and taxpayers, they have an interest in how the county spends tax dollars.

In an earlier interview with the News-Bulletin, village attorney Larry Guggino contends that the New Mexico Hospital Funding Act does not allow the county to enter into a contract with a municipality when the county and the municipality are not going to jointly build or jointly operate a hospital, or the city is not already operating a hospital.

"My father died in the back of an ambulance on the way to Albuquerque," Johnson said. "A lot of people suffer and die in the county because of lack of emergency services and it's unnecessary. The people of Valencia County deserve health care above the level of a Third World country."

Schupp said in the next couple of weeks, Ameris Management will meet with several different organizations to complete the finance package for the project and they will sign the lease once the city's attorney draws it up.