Columbia County pursuing a hospital



Columbia County is once more pursuing a long-held dream of its own health care facility and is hoping one of three Augusta hospitals will partner with it to make it happen.

While the state’s Certificate of Need law has prevented the county from getting a hospital or even a free-standing Emergency Department in the past, County Commission Chairman Ron Cross said there are a couple of exceptions written into the law that might be exploited.

Columbia is the state’s largest county without a hospital or emergency facilities. Despite that, the state earlier this year barred University and Doctors hospitals from pursuing rival proposals to place a free-standing ER there. The Georgia Department of Community Health denied the Certificate of Need because it said there were already adequate emergency services in Augusta to serve Columbia County and the proposals failed to demonstrate the need for more.

There might be exceptions in the law that could help the county get a hospital, Cross said. The law says the department “may allow an exception” if “the facility is an existing teaching hospital,” or if “the facility is a sole community provider” and the county puts up more than 20 percent of the cost.

The county has a request for proposals, due Jan. 10, for a “new institutional health services facility to serve as Columbia County’s sole community provider.” Cross said that would be a 100-bed full-service hospital with a trauma unit. Jim Davis, the CEO of University Hospital, said the cost of that would likely be around $150 million. Cross said Columbia County will have another special purpose local option sales tax in 2014 that could fit the bill.

University, Doctors and Georgia Regents University and its health system all have had talks with the county about a possible facility, Cross said.

“They’ve all got advantages,” he said. “Honestly, I’d love to have all three of them, but it is just not going to work out that way.”

Davis said University’s board would discuss putting forth a proposal at its meeting next week. He said there could be a number of ways it would be attractive to University.

“Our ER is full most of the time and for that matter today our hospital is full as well,” Davis said. “They are wall to wall upstairs at the moment. Having another presence out there would provide us more capacity to take care of people in Columbia County. It would also allow us to forgo some capital investment in our facility downtown in an effort to invest in a facility out in Columbia County that would bring care closer to the citizens of Columbia County, which they obviously feel they need.”

GRU acknowledged that it had received the request for proposal.

“We’ll give the request due diligence and explore the opportunities that are associated with this potential project and its fit with the strategic plan and vision of our enterprise,” health system spokeswoman Denise Parrish said in a statement.

Doctors said it is also evaluating the request.

“Serving the healthcare needs of Columbia County remains a top priority for Doctors Hospital, as the majority of its residents receive care at our facility,” spokeswoman Lindsay Thetford said in a statement.

Even after Columbia County selects a partner, it could be months before a proposal goes up to the state, Cross said.

“It’s a long way from a done deal, but it’s something that has been on my mind for five or six years,” he said.

It is unclear how the state will respond, Cross said, because the county is entering uncharted waters.

“The funny thing about these exceptions is that none of them have ever been tried,” he said.

Finally getting its own facility, however, would be just as important to the county as other improvements in recent years, such as upgrading fire protection, the courthouse and library, Cross said.

“I think this ranks right up there with something that the county needs, particularly with our amount of growth,” he said.

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