BCC approves letter of support for North Walton Doctors Hospital

THE FORMER Healthmark Regional Medical Center during renovations in 2022. There are plans to reopen the facility under new ownership as North Walton Doctors Hospital.


The Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) has approved a letter of support for North Walton Doctors Hospital—a facility that a group of local doctors and community members plan to open at the 35-acre site and buildings that formerly housed Healthmark Regional Medical Center in DeFuniak Springs.

The former facility, closed for many months, was sold on Aug. 18 to the new owners.

The BCC approved the letter of support at its Aug. 22 meeting at the South Walton Annex, after presentations by Dr. John Ward, dermatologist, and Dr. Huy Nguyen, currently chief executive officer (CEO) for Doctors Memorial Hospital in Bonifay.

Ward announced the purchase of the hospital by the group of physicians and community members. He reported that the group was in the process of getting the facility renamed and relicensed as North Walton Doctors Hospital. Ward introduced Nguyen as the future CEO of North Walton Doctors Hospital.

Nguyen noted that his background is that of emergency physician and also explained that his experience had included leading a hospital, including during the time of the pandemic.

He explained that North Walton Doctors Hospital would be managed by physicians, many of whom would be committed to working at the facility.

Nguyen noted that the old Healthmark Regional Medical Center comprises approximately a 60,000-square-foot hospital. “And to the credit of the previous owner, it’s actually in amazing shape,” he continued, explaining that the ER, OR and ICU area have been completely renovated. He told the officials that it would not take long to “bring that hospital back to life,”—although the main portion of the hospital would likely need some work, including the air conditioning. Those needed improvements would be the group’s plans within the next month, Nguyen said.

He also detailed the “enormous burden” that having the hospital open would remove from emergency medical services since it currently takes 30 minutes or more to transport patients requiring transport to a hospital in Okaloosa County, south Walton County, or elsewhere. Nguyen also said that North Walton Doctors Hospital would not hold the ambulance driver delivering a patient to that facility but would immediately release the driver to be available to assist other patients.

Among other remarks, Nguyen said he was committed, “to not only bringing the hospital back, but to bring it back better than it was before.” He revealed that the group already has half a dozen certified emergency physicians who are committed to working at the facility. He assured the officials that some of the owners and investors for the facility are specialists who will bring their services to the hospital, “and number one of which is orthopedic surgery.” Nguyen pledged that spine and joint surgery would also be brought to the facility.

“We’re also looking at cardiology,” he said, “we’re in discussion now with…a strategic partnership with a major nearby cardiology practice, and they’re going to provide basically full-time cardiology coverage at this hospital.”

Ward also spoke to the need for a hospital north of the bay in Walton County since it would be more likely to survive a hurricane if one were to strike the county.

“And I think it’s crucial for the north end of the county to have a hospital that is not only there but thriving,” he said. “We’ll create 300 jobs over the next five years with an average pay of greater than $30 an hour,” Ward pledged.

He made two requests of the BCC, the first of those being a letter of support from the county. The second was letter of credit in connection with their application for a $2 million Rural Economic Development Loan—a loan Ward said had already been approved by CHELCO—with the letter from a county or municipality being a requirement to obtain the funds

The latter is a loan program in which funding is provided for rural projects through local utility organizations.

Ward said he was not asking for any funding from the county at this time. He did not discount the possibility that he would do so later, but said that first he would need to get more information.

BCC Chairman Danny Glidewell asked if, with the letter of credit, Walton County would be “on the hook” for the $2 million if the hospital were to default.

Clay Adkinson, acting county attorney, suggested that the BCC direct him, the county administrator, and Melissa Thomason, Walton County chief financial officer, to speak with CHELCO in order to obtain information on the nature of the letter of credit being requested and other details, and report back to the BCC.

In response to the presentations and requests, District 5 Commissioner Tony Anderson voiced some concern, given past experience with the former facility. “If we’re going to do this, if you’re going to do this,” he said, “I want this to be a top-flight organization. I want this to be something the whole county is proud of, but I also want to know that people in north Walton have a place to go that they feel comfortable they’re going to get better.”

Anderson said he had researched Doctors Memorial Hospital in Bonifay and had gotten “very positive vibe” from that research. He spoke to the need for more doctors north of the bay, not just at the hospital but setting up practices in the area.

Anderson said he had no problem making a motion for the letter of support but also indicated that he would not feel comfortable signing an agreement for the loan letter of credit without the county doing its “due diligence” in obtaining all the details.

“And if this goes through, I’m going to hold you all  to your promise that this is going to be a top-notch hospital,” Anderson concluded.

With Anderson’s motion on the floor, Todd Jackson, CEO at HCA Florida Twin Cities Hospital in Niceville, addressed the commissioners. He confirmed that that hospital had purchased a nine-acre parcel at the corner of I-10 and U.S. 331 in DeFuniak Springs.

Jackson said plans were being finalized for a health care facility on the site but added that it would be premature for him to publicly comment on what health care services would be provided with the future finished facility. He assured the officials that there was not an intent to open a health care clinic or urgent care facility on the property. “What we do intend is something more substantial,” Jackson said.

He spoke in opposition to county funds being provided to North Walton Doctors Hospital “to allow the hospital to provide some indigent care for county citizens…” as had been indicated on the meeting agenda in connection with Ward’s requests. Citing figures, Jackson told the commissioners that HCA Florida Twin Cities had provided “more uncompensated care than Healthmark ever did, and we have not asked this county for a dime.”

Jackson continued to be noncommittal about what was planned on the HCA Florida Twin Cities site in DeFuniak Springs but did respond “yes” to the question of whether an emergency room would be included.

District 4 Commissioner Donna Johns commented, “I personally think it’s great that we’re going to have hospitals, maybe plural, in the north end of this county. I think that’s fantastic.”

In response to a question, Jackson said that if a free-standing emergency room were built on the site, HCA Florida Twin Cities would own and operate their own intra-facility transport to deliver patients as needed to one of their area hospitals.

Seven citizens in attendance addressed the commissioners in support of North Walton Doctors Hospital and spoke to the need for the hospital.

With citizen comment concluded, Ward told Anderson that he took what he had said to him and Nguyen to heart. “I want everyone on this commission to hold us accountable for bringing doctors to the area,” he said.

Ward said he would be moving his dermatology practice to the hospital campus in DeFuniak Springs and that the group would be working to bring orthopedic doctors, obstetricians/gynecologists, gastroenterologists, and cardiologists to the campus as well. “We’re also committed to creating an educational health care campus, not simply a hospital or emergency room,” he said, indicating that this would be in partnership with Northwest Florida State College.

Ward envisioned having the new hospital open for business in January 2024.

Anderson’s motion for approval of the letter of support carried unanimously.