AUTHOR: MARTY

HED:Hospital marks 60th anniversary

By Marty Russell

Daily Journal

Sixty years ago today, a 50-bed community hospital on a hill on what was then the outskirts of Tupelo opened its doors for the first time.

Since then, it has grown to become the third-largest nonmetropolitan hospital system in the United States, branching out to serve 22 counties in two states and employing almost 5,000 people.

But North Mississippi Medical Center, as the hospital came to be known, and its parent company, North Mississippi Health Services, actually came to be through a series of lucky breaks including, ironically, a killer tornado.

Gerald Wages, executive vice president and chief operating officer for North Mississippi Health Services, said the hospital, which this year received national honors for its use of cutting-edge technology, has always been out front on the latest health care advances.

"It's really a history of innovation," Wages said of the hospital's story. "It began as kind of an experiment."

In the early 1930s, a New York-based foundation, the Commonwealth Fund, began searching for locations for six hospitals that would be administered in a unique way for the time - by business people. Previously, almost all hospitals were run by doctors.

The fund wanted to locate one of the hospitals in Mississippi and approached the city of Canton but Canton rejected the offer. The fund then turned to Tupelo.

"They said, 'If you're giving away new hospitals, we'll take one,'" Wages said of the Tupelo community.

There was a catch, however. The Commonwealth Fund would put up $300,000 toward the cost of the new hospital but the community had to come up with $50,000.

Wages said everyone pitched in.

"They even had payroll withholding with people contributing 50 cents out of their paycheck each week," he said.

But it wasn't enough. By 1936, the community had only raised $48,000 and contributions had dried up. Then, in April of that year, a huge tornado swept through Tupelo killing more than 200 people and leveling 48 city blocks.

It was because of that destruction that the Commonwealth Fund agreed to put up the remaining $2,000 and build what would be called North Mississippi Community Hospital when it opened on Oct. 3, 1937.

The private, not-for-profit hospital was built on a hill away from the city proper, at least at the time.

"You had to leave town to get to it," Wages said. "But it turned out to be one of the best decisions ever made because we had the land we needed to expand."

It was the need for expansion that caused the hospital to go from a private, not-for-profit facility in 1937 to a county-owned facility. In the 1950s, the hospital needed money for an expansion but the only way it could get a federal grant was to come up with $400,000 in matching funds.

Lee County's board of supervisors agreed to put up the money but state law prohibited the county from donating to a private project so the hospital's title was turned over to the county and the county leased it back to the private corporation that ran it.

By 1976, the hospital had grown from 50 beds to 550. By 1980 it had become the largest hospital in the state with 600 beds.

In 1987, the county agreed to sell the hospital back to its private corporation.

Today, that private corporation - North Mississippi Health Services - operates five hospitals, 19 family medical clinics, home health agencies in 17 counties, and a variety of health-related businesses, including its Health Link managed care plan.

As of 1996, NMHS had 4,996 employees with an annual payroll of $132 million and revenues of $502 million.

It continues to expand with an open house for its new, $38 million East Tower set for Oct. 12. In March, the corporation hopes to open its new $7 million rehabilitation center and medical office building now under construction. Later this month, construction is set to begin on a $2.7 million medical clinic adjacent to the Mall at Barnes Crossing in Tupelo.

Already, however, NMHS officials say they're running out of space in the system's 117 facilities and Wages said plans are to spend about $210 million on capital improvements projects over the next five years.

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