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Wednesday, 25 May 2011 22:07

The passing of an era? Residents in Macon County say goodbye to independent hospital

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At Macon Barber Shop, you can get a haircut for $10 and a shampoo for $5, but the talk is free for the asking.

In between snips of her scissors and reaching, on occasion, for the electric razor used to get that nicely topped-off look her clients have sported for more than four decades, Frankie Bowers tried to find the right words: About how it's really important that everyone, including communities such as Franklin, get the top medical care available. But also about how saddened many in the community feel about losing the local part of "local hospital."

Last week, in the latest of a handful of consolidations that have reshaped Western North Carolina's hospital industry this decade, Angel Medical Center agreed to move under the Asheville-based Mission Health System umbrella.

"It really does make me sad," Bowers said. "It's been a good hospital for Franklin, and the Franklin people have benefited from it. I have very mixed feelings — I'm not against it per se, but things just keep on changing."

George Hasara, a longtime-ago-move-in to Macon County, has a different take. Hard at working kneading dough at his Rathskeller Coffee Haus & Pub, he was friendly but direct in his assessment of the deal, which will see Mission take over management of Angel.

Mission is the sixth-largest health system in North Carolina. This means the community could benefit from more competitive bidding and pricing, more access to capital, and other perks that come with being a big guy in a medical world that is geared toward big guys with deep pockets.

"If it improves services and helps lower costs, it's a win-win for everyone," Hasara said, then hesitated and added that the "if" is an important element of his assessment.

Angel Medical Center had its inception in a clinic established by Dr. Furman Angel in 1923. The construction of the current facility, in large part, was made possible through community contributions. Angel was, in every sense of the word, a local hospital — formed by the community, built by the community and patronized largely by people living in that community.

Although Angel is a small hospital averaging just 16 inpatients a day, it is still a major economic player in the community. It has an operating budget of $800,000 a week. It employs 430 people, with salaries that are a cut above average wages for the county.

Angel leaders have stressed the agreement signed with Mission last week merely formalizes an already existing partnership.

"I don't think doctors, patients or employees will notice anything any different today over any other day," Angel CEO Tim Hubbs said.

But most people in Macon County believe the move defines a different path for the hospital, a place that has played a central role in so many people's lives here.

And, not just a central role for people native to the area — take Sue Dalgleish, owner of The Attic on Palmer Street, a place for bargain and antique hunters, who has been a Macon County resident for 17 years. She got here like so many in this community, by way of a lengthy stop in Florida. Dalgleish grew up in western Pennsylvania.

Her mother was pivotal in helping that community establish its own hospital, getting a business owner in Pittsburgh to donate the needed property. Dalgleish, like her mother before her, believes in the importance of community.

And, like Bowers, she's saddened by Angel's management agreement with Mission.

Angel, Dalgleish said, had really worked on its image, and the general perception in the community of the medical institution's services was positive.

"What I hate to see is the profit motive (driving decisions) in the entire health industry," she said.

And, Dalgleish is truly afraid Mission might mess up the food. Angel, remarkably, serves up hospital food the community raves about — it even caters, according to Dalgleish.

"You've never eaten there? You have to eat there," she said, adding that people go to the hospital not only for medical needs, but to eat breakfast or lunch — the trout is reputed to be out of this world, and the cheese biscuits are excellent, too.

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