Originally created 08/17/99

Legislators support regional health care



Augusta legislators said Monday they are willing to form an agency to promote regional health care and research in Augusta as an economic development tool. A study committee on regional health care and the future of Medical College of Georgia, meanwhile, took a step forward by voting to look at the possibility of working together on cancer treatment and the creation of a cancer center.

The debate at the Joint Study Committee meeting, however, revealed that undercurrents of mistrust linger and area hospitals still face shrinking numbers of patients and declining payments.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker, D-Augusta, and Rep. Robin Williams, R-Augusta, said they are willing to push for an agency, similar to the Georgia Research Alliance, which promotes research among Georgia universities, to carry out the committee's stated goals of creating a Georgia Medical Centre in Augusta. That entity would help market Augusta hospitals and doctors and promote research, while building on the strengths of each center, as well as create opportunities for collaboration without eliminating competition, Mr. Walker said.

"We're not talking about you all getting together and becoming friends, because you're not going to do that," Mr. Walker said.

How much the new agency is funded may decide what it can do, so "let that particular entity make the decision," said Rep. Ben Allen, D-Augusta. "We're not going to agree" on specifics.

The committee did vote to see if it is possible to work together on cancer treatment and possibly create a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center, which would draw not only patients but also research dollars, said MCG Health Chief Executive Officer Don Snell. Mr. Williams applauded that idea, particularly since there is no such center in Georgia or South Carolina.

"That's one area that's underutilized by all the hospitals," Mr. Williams said. "I think that would be a great idea, especially since we're a border town."

One model the committee is studying is Texas Medical Center, a collaboration of 42 institutions in and around Houston, including 13 hospitals and two medical schools. The center, formed in 1948, is the world's largest medical center and attracts 19,000 patients a year from overseas, said President and CEO Richard Wainerdi. Each institution is separate and does compete with the others, but does have to abide by covenants to cooperate, said Patricia Sodomka, executive director of MCG Hospital and Clinics, adding that the center is marketed jointly overseas.

"They still compete, although each one has developed its own particular strength," Mrs. Sodomka said.

But the Texas Medical Center has advantages Augusta could not match, such as nearly $2 billion in philanthropic contributions and the ability to attract hospitals and a medical school to Houston to become part of it. It also has strong governmental and philanthropic forces pushing cooperation, Dr. Wainerdi said. The center has councils that discuss common issues and combined strategic planning and building programs, as well as sharing some expensive equipment.

"One of the things I tell people who want to do this is that first of all the institutions have to want to work together, there has to be a spirit that one and one is going to be 11, not two," Dr. Wainerdi said. "The other thing that may play a role here is our institutions have been enormously successful. Basically, we're operating at capacity and are adding about a billion dollars worth of new construction."

While Georgia may not be able to copy Texas, committee members still plan to visit in September to study their successes.

Underlying mistrust, however, plagued the committee discussions. Community OB/GYN physician William Barfield said it is important to establish the spirit of cooperation if any joint project is to succeed.

"There needs to be a philosophy that we can make this work and we can make this work in more than one endeavor," Dr. Barfield said.

MCG Chief of Rheumatology Dr. Joseph Bailey said the committee also must recognize that health care in Augusta is threatened in the immediate future by declining payments and patients.

"Running out and putting a new name on the Titanic doesn't make a lot of sense," Dr. Bailey said. MCG alone faces a $22.5 million deficit this year, though an early retirement program, a rate increase and other reforms should address most of it. But Mr. Williams said he also would seek an additional $10 million for MCG in the next legislative session.

"That won't be a complete fix, but I think if they will streamline some things, that will solve their problem for a year," Mr. Williams said. "In the meantime, let this umbrella group come into place, and we can attract new people to these beds (in Augusta)."

Tom Corwin can be reached at (706) 823-3213 or tomc@augustachronicle.com.