Erlanger Hospital’s Board of Trustees is expected to approve a land swap tomorrow night that would give the city of Chattanooga five acres to develop a park for quite a small group of citizens. In return, the cash-strapped hospital will get an eight-acre parcel on the city’s impoverished Southside to develop (wink, wink) a health-care facility to be built “sometime in the future.” Let me let you in on a secret – it’s all subterfuge. The whole thing is smoke-and-mirrors, my friends.
Call it a scheme or a dodge or a feint, I don’t care. But one of the most maddening things about America right now is that otherwise good people have a hard time telling the truth instead of employing back-door shenanigans. Put me down as one who would much rather get excited over something positive and good than hiding our true intentions lest we give some wretched member of “The Legion of the Miserable” a reason to whine. So help me, I hate political side-step almost as much as I do the whiners.
Nobody likes to appear stupid – especially me – and after the “Lincoln Park Give-Way” was first announced back in August, I called it the dumbest thing I had ever heard. What? Erlanger has lost millions and now some bozo wants to give away five downtown acres off Third Street because the old Negro baseball league once played there? Mayor Andy Berke even had a photo-op, pledging to the small number of people in the area he wanted them to have their park. The press conference was almost as repugnant as the give-away itself. Oh, please.
Yet not long after I begged the Hamilton County Commission to halt such tomfoolery, I was privy to an interesting conversation. “Hey, freshman … calm down. You gotta’ look for the forest, not the trees…” I was told with a laugh. “There is a lot more to the story than can be let out of the bag, you understand?”
Come again? “Listen, Lincoln Park is a little over 20 acres of land. What is really happening is Erlanger is deeding about five acres, which will become the “new” Lincoln Park. You savvy so far? The other 15 acres will be deeded in some name other than Lincoln Park because the mayor has promised not to build a connecter, or a road, through Lincoln Park. So now – Voila! -- we can use the other 15 acres to finally connect Central Avenue to Amnicola Highway!”
“This way everybody wins,” I was told. “Lincoln Park has already been painted, flowers installed, a reunion party has been held, everybody’s grinning. Now none of the neighbors can complain about the road. What is crucial to Erlanger and the city itself is that connector from Amnicola Highway.
“It is a key proponent in easy access to anyone in the north end of the county instead of ambulances having to go all the way down to the UTC exit before they can loop back around to the hospital through all the red lights. What does a small park really matter when this connector will connect thousands of vehicles to Central Avenue, East Third Street and so forth? Wake up and sniff the coffee!”
Well, duh. Erlanger has been desperate for the “Amnicola Connection” for decades. The eight-acre plot in south Chattanooga was hurriedly thrown into the deal after some trustees balked at the five-acre give-away because Erlanger has been roundly criticized for throwing good money after bad. But with the Alton Park eyesore now in the mix, hospital CEO Kevin Spiegel can brag the financial impact in the land swap is “zero.”
Believe this: it will be years before Erlanger can ever build a health facility in South Chattanooga. Are you kidding? You can’t get anybody to put a restaurant or a convenience store within a mile of a trashy eight-acre rat’s nest Erlanger just got so neatly wrapped with a (taxable) bow. The average income of those who live around 38th Street and Ohls Avenue will make you cry -- no wonder Mayor Berke hopes a health clinic will soon be open for business.
Now, if Mayor Berke would study what every other mid-sized city in America does to bolster their Level 1 trauma centers and public hospitals, perhaps he might act with the forthright dignity his office should aspire. I can see a wonderful facility becoming a beacon for the poor and those who need and deserve adequate health care in the Alton Park-St. Elmo communities in South Chattanooga.
But the city of Chattanooga has instead refused to give Erlanger Hospital as much as one thin dime to offset the many millions in indigent health care that the hospital has been forced to absorb in recent years. No other city in America would dare do that to its primary health provider. And it is flat-out wrong.
Nashville, Memphis and Knoxville give their hospitals over $20 million to $30 million a year. You ought to see how Atlanta, Birmingham and other cities help with indigent care but – in candor – Hamilton County allocates a meager $1.5 million a year to Erlanger while the city of Chattanooga totally ignores the hospital until an indigent child is shot by another.
Erlanger is rightfully owned by the citizens of the city and the county. Too few tax dollars and overwhelming empathy from elected officials is not only unfathomable but now Erlanger officials are being forced to actually slash employee benefits in a merciless and disgusting fashion. No wonder morale is terrible, the mood is desperate, and the bottom-line losses continue. Yet no one wants to help.
We can plainly see that every week new shooting victims from within Mayor Berke’s city limits are delivered to Erlanger’s emergency room and can easily surmise the average cost is roughly $50,000 per victim. All have no insurance. All are by definition indigent. And everybody at Erlanger Hospital – in truth, not subterfuge – is stunned by the irreprehensible lack of responsibility from City Hall.
Oh well. At least those living in Hixson and the lake communities and up Highway 58 will one day have precious minutes shaved from emergency ambulance rides – saving lives -- and it will be far easier to access other areas of Chattanooga with the new connector. Understand, you’ll hardly notice the “new” Lincoln Park, which, as politically promised, will not include a road like the “old” one soon will, but at least now you know more about double-speak, the feint-and-dodge of politics, and how it appears Erlanger will at long last get a corridor that will doubtlessly save lives.
Then again, wouldn’t it have been easier and so refreshing just to tell the truth? Jumping through hoops just ain’t my style.