Originally created 12/28/96

Legislators cool to hospital officials' request



University Hospital officials held their first legislative breakfast with local lawmakers Friday and met surprising resistance to the hospital's request to keep the certificate of need process.

In the next legislative session, lawmakers will consider doing away with the CON process, which allows the state to limit the number of hospital beds, surgery centers and expensive pieces of equipment such as magnetic resonance imaging machines. Legislators such as Rep. Ben Allen, D-Augusta, wonder why competition in the free market can't do just as good a job.

"I recognize (the process) has not reduced costs the way everyone thought it would," said hospital president Donald Bray. "(But) I think (the process) has been effective in developing statewide plans we all need to respond to - statewide plans that recognize needs in entire areas that won't be met if we're in a free market economy."

But Mr. Allen, an attorney, said competition from other attorneys has forced him to charge less for some services than he did 20 years ago.

If there is unneeded or duplicated services, "don't you think the marketplace would thin that out?" Mr. Allen asked.

Duplication actually drives up costs because providers have to find ways to pay for the unneeded equipment or unnecessary services, Mr. Bray said.

It's more likely that the process will be phased out over time and in areas where competition would not hurt rural or underserved urban facilities, said Sen. Charles Walker, D-Augusta. And for-profit companies that are pushing for the change could be required to serve indigent populations if they want the more lucrative services, Mr. Walker said.

"You're going to have to take a piece of the total action," he said.

While both legislators and hospital officials said the first official breakfast was a good chance to clear the air, Sen. Don Cheeks said there should be no mistaking what the future holds for hospitals like University.

"We know what the taxpayers are telling us: Get the costs down," he said.