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METAIRIE, La. - One of the main suitors in the pursuit of operating East Jefferson andWest Jefferson hospitals has decided to pull out of the process.

HCA's MidAmerica Division announced Thursday that the company has decided to withdraw all proposals to lease and operate East Jefferson General Hospital and West Jefferson Medical Center and will no longer participate in the selection process.

'This process has simply gone on for too long, with no appearance of resolution and no end in sight. We are not prepared to continue in this process,' said Mel Lagarde, HCA Mid America Division president.

The process to select an operator has gone on for nearly two years, with the process accelerating during the past 12 months, but with little indication that a decision was coming any time soon.

The three suitors had been HCA, Ochsner Health System and Louisiana Children's Medical Center. HCAand Children's had been the two front runners, with East Jeff favoring HCAand West Jeff's board favoring Children's.

The withdrawal by HCAdoesn't necessarily mean that Children's will be named the operator. Ochsner could also be a contender and at least one council person is asking for the 4th, 5th and 6th place contenders to be reconsidered.

Those groups include Fransicans, who run Our Lady of the Lake in Baton Rouge; Health Management Associates and Vanguard Health Systems.

The HCAannouncement came abruptly, but Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand, who is the East Jefferson board chairman said it was not a surprise to him.

'They've been called criminals,'he said. 'This is a company that was willing to spend north of a half a billion dollars in this community... the competitive marketplace for health care is tough enough.'

At a recent meeting in January several members of the council wanted more time to choose an out-of-state auditor to review the proposals by the three firms looking to win a 30-year lease for the two public hospitals.

'We appreciate the efforts of the Hospital Boards and the Parish Council, as well as the support we've received from many in the community throughout this process. We wish you well as you continue to evaluate options for the future of your hospitals.'

HCA's MidAmerica Division continues to operate Lakeview Regional Medical Center in Covington, and along with its partner Tulane University operates the Tulane Medical Center and Tulane-Lakeside Hospital in the greater New Orleans area.

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