Columbia County Board of Commissioners struggles with complexity of hospital decision

The more information they get, the more complex Columbia County commissioners said they find the task of picking a partner from among three Augusta hospitals to build a new hospital in the county.

And while two health care professionals at a public hearing Friday endorsed University Hospital as their choice, Chairman Ron Cross said he has heard just as many folks argue for the other two bidders, Doctors Hospital and Georgia Regents Health System.

In the invocation, Cross offered up a prayer for guidance through the “complexities” of picking one of the three to apply for state permission to build a hospital in the county, the state’s largest county without one.

“We actually are becoming more and more confused as we get further into this pertaining to the process of choosing one entity to partner with,” he said.

Fellow commissioners echoed that sentiment.

“It’s kind of, the more that you learn, the more you realize you don’t know,” Commissioner Trey Allen said.

It is also the gravity of the decision that is weighing on them.

“This is a massive investment in our community, hundreds of millions of dollars for something that will be a cornerstone of our county for lifetimes, hopefully decades and centuries to come,” Allen said.

“It’s sort of like getting married,” Commissioner Bill Morris said. “You’re going to be with her for the rest of your life, hopefully.”

The commissioners are getting an earful from the public on what the choice should be and what the choice should not be.

“I’ve had supporters for all of you,” Morris told hospital leaders sitting in the audience. “(Others said) ‘Whatever you do, don’t choose so-and-so.’ I think the community itself is trying to decide what is best for Columbia County.”

“It is so difficult in these situations to not have a popularity contest because that’s what we have run into from a lot of the citizens,” Cross said.

After earlier declining as a member of a special committee to recommend one of the bidders to the commission, retired ophthalmologist Allan Stocks offered his idea of an ideal hospital for the county and who best fits that mold, having practiced at all three Augusta bidders.

“It should have patient care as its primary mission, if not its only mission,” he said, in the most efficient and cost-effective manner and be open to any physician who wants to practice there. “Ownership, management and governance should where possible be local. The administration should be folks who have Columbia County’s interest as their primary interest.”

For that reason, Doctors, which is part of the large hospital chain HCA, would not fit the bill, said Stocks, who owned stock in an HCA surgery center.

“I can tell you that local decisions are always kicked upstairs and final decision rests with HCA on local matters in many cases,” he said. Georgia Regents is a “large institution,” Stocks said. “It is a bureaucracy unto itself. It already has spread across the state to many other facilities. Their focus is not here, on just this community. And they don’t answer to Columbia County. They answer to the (University System of Georgia) Board of Regents in Atlanta.” He also said the “town/gown split” would prevent community physicians from practicing at a GRU facility.

But David Hefner, GRU executive vice president for clinical affairs said the health system is proposing a community hospital with two-thirds of the physicians from the community.

University is the best choice, Stocks said.

“Its sole mission is to provide the highest possible quality of patient care delivered in the most efficient and cost-effective manner,” he said. “They’re not concerned about their stockholders. They’re concerned about their patients.”

Jodi Lott, who worked as a nurse at Georgia Regents and University and had surgery at Doctors, said there is already a “great medical community in Columbia County” and the commission should ask the physicians where they are sending their patients and who patients are choosing. For her, it is University, even though its proposed presence across the street from her physical therapy practice might hurt business.

“That takes precedence over losing a few patients,” Lott said.

Some of the commissioners seemed to hint that “outside experts” would be needed to help them make that choice.

“I do not feel qualified to make this decision just on my own,” Morris said. “I need some direction. I would like to put more thought and study into this and listen to what some others have to say.”

Cross said there might be some talk about consultants when the commission meets March 18 to take up the bids. But there won’t be a long delay on making a decision.

“We’re not going to drag it out forever,” Cross said. “We will have some information and some plan ready for our next commission meeting. We’ve got a lot of talking to do and I guess a considerable amount of research to do.”

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Three Augusta hospitals vie for Columbia County project
TOPIC PAGE: Columbia County Commission

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