Some local officials say a proposed partnership with the Medical University of South Carolina could be positive for the Regional Medical Center, but are urging Orangeburg and Calhoun county councils not to rush into anything.

“I don’t have anything against the partnering, but I am thinking we should wade in the water, not dive in,” Orangeburg County Council Vice Chair Janie Cooper-Smith said Monday.

“Take this slowly and see what is going to happen. I don’t think is something we should just go into blind, I think,” she said. “Let’s take it slowly. Don’t bite off everything and swallow it, but take your time and chew it.”

Cooper-Smith spoke during a meeting of the RMC Board of Trustees with Orangeburg and Calhoun county councils. The two counties own the hospital.

They were discussing a possible partnership between MUSC and RMC. A budget proviso passed by the S.C. General Assembly allows MUSC, within its own budget, to enter into the partnership with RMC.

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Cooper-Smith said she does not want to see RMC close like Bamberg and Barnwell county hospitals, but she recalled how there were calls at one time for South Carolina State University and Denmark Technical College to merge with other universities and colleges.

Both are thriving now without merging with larger entities, she said.

She said she is particularly concerned about the public that uses the hospital and feels they have not been appropriately consulted.

“You can have a hospital full of doctors, full of specialists of all kinds, but if you don’t have any patients, you just have a building full of experts and nobody for those people to work on,” Cooper-Smith said. “I think we should include the stakeholders.”

Monday’s meeting of the governing bodies was called at the request of RMC Board Chair the Rev. Dr. Caesar Richburg.

MUSC officials propose entering into the partnership by the close of RMC’s fiscal year: Sept. 30.

A working group has been formed to help implement the partnership. The group is to be responsible for drafting a plan that will be provided to the local legislative delegation and Orangeburg and Calhoun county councils for review and action.

The working group has been asked to submit its recommendations before Sept. 1. Upon review, both councils would pass ordinances by Oct. 1 reflecting the recommended implementation of the partnership, according to a document.

The local legislative delegation has expressed its support for the partnership.

Richburg said the RMC Board was in the process of forming an ad hoc committee to discuss a partnership even before the S.C. General Assembly’s proviso.

“We were executing with intentionality,” Richburg said. “We weren’t pushing it fast, because we wanted to make certain that we did not make any mistakes.”

“This was a part of it.”

“The persons of whom you asked to serve have not just been sitting on our hands, if you will,” Richburg said. “We always knew, if you date back a little bit, that there was the need for some type of an alignment or partnership.”

Richburg said the board looked heavily at MUSC as a partner in the process.

RMC trustee Samantha Farlow-Moyd expressed her excitement about a partnership with MUSC, but did express some concerns.

“I want to make sure that MUSC knows our culture, knows our people,” Farlow-Moyd said. “I think it is important MUSC understands our people. I think it is important that we have a lot to offer.”

“This is not a situation where one is David and one is Goliath,” Farlow-Moyd continued. “I want us to make sure that we see ourselves as equals. I want to make sure that we negotiate aggressively to make sure that we just don’t accept everything that MUSC tells us is good for our community.”

Dr. Franklin Coulter, who is one of the RMC doctors on the working group, described RMC as a “jewel for this county.”

“It has to survive,” he said. “I don’t see it not surviving, no matter what we do here. It has to survive however we put it together.”

Coulter said MUSC has a brand that RMC can benefit from.

He noted RMC has worked with MUSC in the areas of behavioral health, telemedicine, ICU and tele-neurology.

“The experience we had with them in the cancer center was not a good one,” Coulter said. “It is important, I think, for us to recognize that this could be a good partnership, but we don’t want it to go down the wrong track.”

Coulter did note that he would like to see more members of the RMC board on the working group.

RMC trustee Dr. Mohammad Nassri said he does not think anyone is afraid of change.

“I have not talked to anyone on the staff who is against this move,” Nassri said. “We all knew that we had to do something to ensure the hospital thrives. The hospital has been in some difficulties and has some challenges big and small and the pandemic made things even more dire in many ways.”

MUSC “is a fine institution,” Nassri continued. “They will bring a lot of positive change. I think the community here deserves a better system then we have.

“It is not to say anything negative about the hospital. It is the nature of things. Smaller hospitals are being taken over by larger systems. We have to accept this. This is something we can either go along with or stay behind.”

Nassri did express concerns about how the working group has been formed and said he believes there should have been more consultation with both county councils.

Nassri said there are also still issues that need to be discussed with MUSC about the partnership and “whoever is behind all of this.”

“I still don’t know who exactly these people are,” he said. “Transparency has not been a major thing with this move, unfortunately and sadly.”

Orangeburg County Council Chair Johnnie Wright as well as Councilwoman Deloris Frazier, Councilman Joseph Garvin and Councilman Johnny Ravenell all expressed their support for an RMC-MUSC partnership.

Orangeburg County Councilman Kenneth McCaster declined comment, noting all had been said.

Calhoun County Chair James Haigler and Calhoun County Vice Chair Ken Westbury also expressed their support for the partnership.

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