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Judge will rule on South Hall hospital

Barrow officials want certificate of need nixed

POSTED: December 2, 2008 5:00 a.m.

WINDER — Following a two-hour hearing Monday, a Barrow County Superior Court judge said he will rule within three weeks on a challenge to a certificate of need for a 100-bed hospital in Braselton.

Barrow Regional Medical Center wants a reversal of the certificate that was granted to Northeast Georgia Health System.

Under Georgia law, medical facilities with a capital cost of $2.5 million or higher must apply for a certificate of need through the Georgia Department of Community Health. Where there are competing facilities, the impact of new facilities on existing ones is taken into consideration.

Former Georgia Attorney General Michael J. Bowers, who represents Barrow Regional, said state officials overstepped their boundaries in granting approval for the hospital.

"This is the clearest smoking gun of abuse of discretion I have ever seen," Bowers said in the hearing before Judge Robert Adamson. Bowers argued the state erred in allowing the hospital to change its application, originally to move 100 beds at the Lanier Park campus of Northeast Georgia Medical Center, to one for a completely new hospital. Bowers also said the state used incomplete data in measuring the negative impact on Barrow Regional Medical Center.

When the original application was filed, North Georgia Health System planned to move 100 acute-care beds from Lanier Park to the new South Hall hospital. The
application was revised in 2007 for 100 new beds. The health system plans to move the Lanier Park capacity to its main campus on Spring Street when the North Patient Tower is completed next spring.

Bowers, in an impassioned argument, said the case boils down to one central issue.

"It’s not about community pride; it’s about money," Bowers told the court.

Armando Basarrate, an attorney for the health system, said otherwise in his rebuttal.

"That’s not Northeast Georgia’s point of view," Basarrate said. "This is about getting people the services they need."

Barrow officials believe the decision is critical for the survival of their local hospital, and a number of top hospital administrators and Barrow business leaders were in the courtroom Monday.

Barrow Regional is a 56-bed hospital owned by Health Management Associates, a Naples, Fla., company that operates 56 nonurban and suburban hospitals primarily in the Southeast.

A number of community leaders from Hall County also were present for the hearing. The new hospital is viewed as an economic engine for the growing South Hall area, which is home to more than half the county’s population.

The Northeast Georgia application has been approved repeatedly by the Department of Community Health. Barrow Regional filed an appeal with a hearing officer in December and with a review board in February. In both cases, Northeast Georgia’s application was upheld. Barrow’s lawsuit, filed in April on the last day of the appeals period, was the last legal avenue to prevent Northeast Georgia from moving forward with its plans.

Jim Gardner, chief executive officer of Northeast Georgia Medical Center, said the appeal of the decision was expected and was built into the time line for the new hospital.

"I think you have to respect the judicial process and see where it goes," Gardner said.

Gardner said construction on the new hospital, once approved, would begin in 2010. The new facility has an estimated cost of $200 million.

Adamson, who is leaving the bench at the end of the year, said he was limited in the scope on which he can rule.

"You have left me with a difficult decision," Adamson said.


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