A state licensing official said he was a little mystified when he heard former Georgia Rep. Robin Williams was being paid $150,000 to help a south Georgia hospital get a permit from his agency.
The Georgia attorney general's office is looking into a complaint filed against Mr. Williams over his hiring as a consultant to Satilla Health Services. The Waycross hospital was seeking a state license, known as a Certificate of Need, to establish a lucrative open-heart surgery program.
But at the time Mr. Williams was hired, the state Division of Health Planning had already rejected the hospital's application, said Clyde Reese, the general counsel to the division. The next step would be an appeal before an independent hearing officer. Mr. Williams was granted a meeting with Mr. Reese and Department of Community Health Commissioner Gary Redding, who oversees that division. But the discussion was limited to explaining the process to Mr. Williams, Mr. Reese said.
At that point in the system, the division is represented by the attorney general's office, and Mr. Reese said he plays no role in the hearings.
"I'm not sure what the folks in Waycross thought they would accomplish" by hiring Mr. Williams, Mr. Reese said.
Mr. Williams did not return messages left for him Friday.
Satilla Health did prevail in its appeal to the hearing officer, but that decision was later overturned by the full Health Planning Review Board. A hearing was held Friday in Ware County Superior Court on the hospital's petition for judicial review of the board's decision. A ruling on whether to overturn that decision is expected within 45 days, Community Health spokesman Andy Boisseau said.
What also raised eyebrows at the division was the amount of money - $150,000 - that Mr. Williams received for his service. On the certificate application is a section for the applicant to list consultant fees, Mr. Reese said.
"The highest I've ever seen is $35,000," he said. "From my perspective, (Mr. Williams' fee) seems high to me."
Community Mental Health Center of East Central Georgia paid even more than that - $250,000 - to International Consulting Corp. to prepare a Certificate of Need application for inpatient child and adolescent services. The company, which Mr. Williams said is part of an affiliated group of companies to which he has ties, never filed the application but did return $208,000 to the board after the state began investigating.
The certificates are required for a hospital or health system to buy an expensive piece of equipment, to add a service or to do a significant renovation. The state restricts the number of licenses to prevent the unnecessary duplication of services or equipment. Thus they can become fierce battlegrounds for competing hospitals, particularly when the service or equipment under consideration is worth millions of dollars.
It is not unusual for politicians to get involved, Mr. Reese said.
"I won't deny that sometimes the applicants have their local legislators write a letter of support," Mr. Reese said. "I can tell you the way we look at those is just as we do everybody else's. It's pretty well established that we take the law and apply it."
Reviewing analysts are shielded from all contact with the parties involved, he said. Allowing politics to enter into it, Mr. Reese said, would mean losing the air of impartiality and would lead to endless questioning over the decision, which would surely doom it in the long run.
"You can get into nothing but trouble trying to politicize the CON process," he said. "(If we did), we wouldn't last very long."
Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.