University Hospital has long envisioned building a hospital on its campus in Evans, and now it has formally filed for permission to do that.
It might depend, however, on Columbia County voters approving $28 million in tax funding, according to the application.
University is the first of three Augusta hospitals vying to build a 100-bed hospital in Columbia County to put in the application for the required certificate of need. Both Doctors Hospital and Georgia Regents Health System also said they are on track to turn their applications in.
With a surplus of licensed hospital beds in Augusta, University is hoping to use an exception to the normal need standard that would allow a hospital to be built if it is the sole community provider – Columbia County is the state’s largest county without a hospital – and if the county provides 20 percent of the cost of construction. University estimated the cost of its project at just under $144 million and the county’s share at $28 million. That would come from a special purpose local option sales tax referendum that will be on the Nov. 4 ballot, said Ed Burr, the senior vice president for legal affairs at University.
“They would then see what happens,” he said. “That would be where that $28 million would come from.”
Should voters reject the SPLOST, as Augusta voters did earlier this month of a different sales tax, “Columbia County will work with University Health Care System to evaluate other financing options, including but not limited to the issuance of bonds,” Burr quoted from the application. “We’d try to convince the department that their guaranteeing bonds would meet the requirement of a county governing authority contribution.”
The county has offered all three hospitals the same arrangement but GR Health can apply under two of the other exceptions, which is if the applicant is a current teaching hospital or an existing trauma center, said Shawn Vincent, the vice president of partnerships.
“Our main goal is really to approach this as a teaching hospital and certainly as (a health system) with decades of experience as a major trauma center for this region,” he said. “However, it doesn’t mean that we won’t take advantage of anything the county is willing to do.”
Recognizing that it does not utilize all of its 581 licensed beds currently, University would transfer 100 to the new facility so as not to add to the hospital bed burden in the area.
“I don’t think it alleviates the concern (about too many beds) but it doesn’t hurt,” Burr said. “By itself it wouldn’t accomplish anything but I think it is a nice extra benefit.”
Doctors and GR Health both said they are considering doing the same thing in their applications.
“It certainly may make the filing of the CON more palatable perhaps” to the Georgia Department of Community Health, which would decide whether to grant the certificate, Vincent said. With University and GR Health, most of those licensed beds were granted in an era when most rooms were semi-private, with two or more beds per room, and with rooms converted to private beds many of those beds can’t be staffed anyway, Burr said Vincent said.
In its application to build a new 282,000-square-foot facility on its campus in Evans, University claims that location, which it bought in 1986, is an ideal spot because University already has a number of physician offices, an imaging center and outpatient surgery center there. The extension of River Watch Parkway will also go right up to the edge of its campus, which should improve ease of access, University said in the application.
“It works out nicely,” Burr said. When University bought the land, officials probably didn’t “envision it being quite as perfect a spot as it turned out to be,” he said. “That’s all come together perfectly.”
Services and buildings have been added to the campus over the years with the idea that this proposed hospital would be a big piece, Burr said.
“Our leadership has always, in their development of that campus, had as an expectation that somehow we would get a hospital out there,” he said.
If it gets a certificate and follows its proposed timeline, University would complete the construction in April 2018 and the hospital would open a few months later with 350 full-time positions, according to the application. University projected it would clear about $2.3 million the first year of operations with 42 percent utilization, rising to $3.7 million and 53 percent utilization its second year, when it would have a projected 400 full-time positions. Because of the difficulty getting tax-exempt status for its McDuffie hospital and other bureaucratic snags, University would run the operations as essentially one hospital with two campuses, Burr said.