As recently as this past fall, Beaufort Memorial Hospital CEO Rick Toomey heard rumblings that one of the three private OB-GYN practices affiliated with his hospital was shopping around with another facility.
Toomey said that at the time he wasn't concerned because he didn't think the Charleston-based suitor -- which he would not identify -- was not interested.
But in retrospect, that should have been a red flag, Toomey admitted Monday.
Months later, the hospital seeks to rebuild its OB-GYN department after not one, but two practices have announced their planned departures.
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"It wasn't clear what they were looking for," Toomey said Monday of the rumors he heard in October or November, "and I didn't follow up on it."
Werner, Royal Csakany OB-GYN and Coastal Obstetrics and Gynecology announced earlier this month that they will merge to form Coastal Obstetrics and Gynecology. The new practice will join Coastal Carolina Hospital in October and begin making deliveries there in early 2014.
In the days since the announcement, Toomey has tried to reassure patients and staff that the hospital will rebuild its OB-GYN department and continue a long history of delivering babies. That effort included two public forums Monday at the hospital, which attracted a total of about 50 people, most of them hospital staff members or others in the medical field.
Few comments and questions came from the audience. Megan Meyer, associate director of special gifts with the Beaufort Memorial Foundation, said it is a difficult change for someone like her, who delivered her daughter at Beaufort Memorial in 2011. Her daughter is the fourth generation of the family born at the facility.
"It means something to me, and the people I've talked to, it means something to them," she said.
Despite what, in hindsight, look like warning signs, Toomey only learned of the doctors' planned departure "10 days ago," he said Monday. He added that the departing physicians had mentioned their status with the hospital only in passing during the past year. Serious discussion with Werner, Royal Csakany OB-GYN about employment, finances and patient care had not taken place since 2010-11, according to Toomey. Talks with Coastal Obstetrics and Gynecology hadn't occurred since 2008-09.
Toomey added the doctors at the practices -- the make up of which has changed since then -- were not offered direct employment with the hospital, although it was considered.
Coastal Obstetrics and Gynecology directed comments to Coastal Carolina last week, which issued a statement that did not directly address the practice's relationship with Beaufort Memorial.
Coastal Carolina, which is owned by the Tenet Healthcare Corp., plans a 16-bed center with capacity for 1,000 deliveries a year.
Beaufort Memorial board of trustees chairman Jerry Schulz said his hospital is more inclined to help the practices it works with recruit doctors than it is to purchase the practices or hire doctors directly.
However, Beaufort Memorial is now advertising to hire three or four obstetricians, who would be in place before the departing doctors leave. About 20 applications for the positions have been received since Friday, Toomey said.
Toomey said Beaufort Memorial will be staffed and prepared to offer options for women who want to use Beaufort Memorial.
The doctors who perform births for local military personnel or low-income residents remain with Beaufort Memorial.
Toomey said hospital officials are looking at this as an opportunity to gauge community needs against what services the hospital provides. Community-input meetings will be scheduled soon.
"We've got a little bit of competition down the road, and it will change how we are," he said.
Follow reporter Erin Moody at twitter.com/IPBG_Erin.