Originally created 01/20/99

Chancellor opposes pharmacy closing

ATLANTA -- University System of Georgia Chancellor Stephen Portch apologized to lawmakers Tuesday and pledged the initial decision to close the Medical College of Georgia's outpatient pharmacy serving the state's poor "will not stand."

Dr. Portch said he, like lawmakers, was not informed about the decision before it became public.

"There was extraordinarily poor communication on that. I apologize for it happening, it shouldn't have happened. I don't expect for it to happen again," the chancellor told members of the House and Senate budget-writing appropriations committees.

"Errors were made. We need to be engaged. That decision should never have been made in isolation."

MCG president Francis J. Tedesco said the administration had thought the decision on the proposed closing had been put off and when the news broke, "We were all caught by surprise."

Dr. Portch's mea culpa didn't keep lawmakers critical of the proposed pharmacy closing from threatening legislation to put MCG's hospital more tightly under state or legislative oversight.

"Is there a problem here where the hospital needs to be taken away from the regents?" asked Rep. Robin Williams, R-Augusta.

"How could you not be part of it?" Mr. Williams asked Dr. Portch. "This is a rogue group of people who are just going to run it like they want to, and that's a problem."

That is what is troubling to Dr. Tedesco and one of the things he wants to convey to legislators in a meeting next Tuesday in Atlanta.

"We have always been respectful of their opinions," Dr. Tedesco said.

The questions came during a more-than-hour-long presentation by Dr. Portch to the budget committees on Gov. Roy Barnes' fiscal 2000 university system budget proposal.

News that MCG planned to close a pharmacy that provides about 180,000 prescriptions a year largely to Georgia's poor broke two days before the 1999 legislative session began.

The pharmacy, which could lose $5 million this year, was going to be closed as part of a $7.3 million budget cut this year, to be followed by an $11 million cut next fiscal year, Dr. Tedesco said last week.

Constituents flooded lawmakers with calls complaining about the closing, however, and legislators planned to use proposed funding for the state-supported medical college as a bargaining chip.

Dr. Tedesco faxed a letter to members of his local legislation delegation last week pledging to postpone the closing until officials could meet with lawmakers and others to explain the decision and look at options.

While leaving the door open for other solutions, his letter did not promise to keep the pharmacy open permanently.

Dr. Portch went a step further.

"It will not stand," he said of MCG's decision. While he had not talked to Dr. Portch, Dr. Tedesco said the chancellor's pronouncement "is correct."

The chancellor said he has not seen any analysis detailing why the pharmacy should be closed.

Without some thorough review of the proposal and other options, no decision can be made, he said, and that kind of analysis will take time.

MCG still faces serious issues in trimming more than $7 million this fiscal year and another $11 million next fiscal year because of declining reimbursement, Dr. Tedesco said.

Legislators also raised other concerns about MCG. Sen. Don Cheeks, D-Augusta, complained that the school's hospital was turning away from its mission to treat indigent Georgians.

Others raised questions about MCG Health Inc., the new agency that will run the school's hospital in hopes of making it more financially competitive in the rapidly changing health care market.

But Dr. Tedesco said MCG Health played no role in the pharmacy decision.

Mr. Williams, however, questioned whether the MCG Health Inc.'s board of directors should be headed by Board of Regents member Tom Allgood of Augusta, whose family is in the nursing home business.

"Rep. Williams brings up some valid points," said Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, a member of the House leadership team and former chairman of the House University System of Georgia committee. "This issue is brewing under the surface. It's something we need to get a handle on very quickly."

Staff Writer Tom Corwin contributed to this article.

James Salzer is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com.


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