Wednesday February 13, 2013

KEITH WHITCOMB JR.

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- While many Select Board members appear to be supportive of proposed amendments to a 100-year-old deed of trust between the town and what is now Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, a vote will wait until the board’s next meeting in two weeks so the public has time to voice its opinion.

Southwestern Vermont Medical Center, owned by Southwestern Vermont Health Care, was respresented by its CEO, Thomas Dee, and other representatives at a televised meeting on Monday.

Dee explained that SVMC has the oldest physical plant of any hospital in Vermont. He said its medical office building will need to be upgraded at some point and SVHC will need access to a large amount of capital to make that happen. The language in the century-old deed of trust, however, hinders the hospital from exploring certain financing options which could include lease agreements with developers or securing investors.

Dee said there are no final plans for any facility upgrades or plans on how those will be financed, but changes will need to happen for the hospital to remain viable in an era where outpatient services are increasing and Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements are on the decline.

The land the hospital sits on was entrusted to the town by Henry W. Putnam and used to bear his namesake. When Putnam entrusted the land to the town, his intention was that it would be used solely for health-care purposes.

Board Chairman Joseph Krawczyk said the board and hospital trustees have been in talks for at least four years about the proposed changes. He said in an interview Tuesday that board members were skeptical at first but as the talks progressed they saw the need the hospital was facing and the proposed language would not change the board’s level of oversight or responsibility, and it still holds that anything built on hospital property must used be for health care.

According to SVHC, initial estimates for the modernization project exceed $80 million, and one way to lower the cost would be to have a developer build it, then enter into a lease of some kind with said developer. Tom Jacobs, general counsel for SVHC, said Monday any such agreement would have to conform to the deeds of trust. He said the deed in question involves nine different documents, most of which were written close to 100 years ago in legal language that did not anticipate some of the realities regarding modern health-care delivery systems.

Most board members who spoke at Monday’s meeting seemed favorable to the proposal, with board member Jason Morrissey saying this is a practical form of economic development the board has a chance to advance. He said the hospital employs more than 1,000 people and the amended deeds would provide SVHC with a necessary tool to grow, adapt, and survive.

Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at kwhitcomb@benningtonbanner.com or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.