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Hospital committee to focus on needs in Columbia County

Posted: January 26, 2014 - 1:05am

The 11-member committee that will evaluate proposals to build a hospital in Columbia County appears to have little experience with the certificate of need process the proposal will have to go through for permission from the state.

That’s a good thing, a Columbia County official said.

The committee members, who include two physicians, are to focus more on who will best meet the needs of the county and not worry about the complicated process of meeting the licensing needs, Columbia County Administrator Scott Johnson said.

“This panel truly will be judging what’s best for Columbia County citizens and what is the best proposal as it relates to cost and what is being offered,” he said. “It will be up to our hospital partner, whoever that may be, to traverse the CON (certificate of need) issues.”

At its first meeting Wednesday night, the committee chose former Columbia County Commission Chairman and former state Sen. Jim Whitehead as its chairman and Barry Paschal as vice chairman.

The committee received copies of the three bids and set a schedule for meeting with representatives of the bidders in about three weeks. Officials hope the committee will make a recommendation to the county commission on who to work with to apply for a certificate for at least a 100-bed hospital with a trauma unit.

Three Augusta hospitals – Doctors Hospital, Georgia Regents Health System and University Hospital – have submitted proposals in response to Columbia County’s request for proposals to build a hospital in partnership with the county.

Doctors has proposed a $150 million, 108-bed hospital with a $14.5 million medical office building on the site. Georgia Regents has offered a $280 million to $310 million health campus with a 144-bed hospital that would include a satellite of the university to offer classes. University has proposed a $130 million to $140 million, 100-bed hospital on its existing Evans campus.

After University and Doctors were shot down last year in competing proposals to build a free-standing emergency department in Columbia County because the state ruled the county is adequately served by Augusta hospitals, officials at the Georgia Department of Community Health pointed county officials to three exceptions to that need standard: If the facility is part of an existing teaching hospital; if it is part of an existing trauma center; and if the county pays 20 percent of the cost.

None of the exceptions has ever been used to get a certificate of need.

Each proposal relies on one or more of those exceptions, and all feel they can get around the need for a certificate with the legal exception, Johnson said.

Getting a hospital has long been the desire of Columbia County officials but the certification standard has made that look daunting.

“With the number of beds in Augusta in close proximity, I think any hospital would have a difficult time obtaining a CON,” Johnson said.

In fact, Doctors Hospital wrote in its proposal that “if CON rules, including its need methodology for additional hospital beds, had allowed, Doctors Hospital would already have a hospital in Columbia County.”

County commission Chairman Ron Cross has acknowledged that getting the permission will be “a fight” and that whoever is not selected will likely put up a legal challenge to the effort.

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