Originally created 06/14/05

Potential loss upsets doctors



Augusta physicians lamented the potential demise of St. Joseph Hospital for its nurturing atmosphere and easy access and predicted a migration of physicians and patients to University Hospital should it close. Some blamed Blue Cross Blue Shield of Georgia, with which the facility recently cut ties because it said it was losing millions from low reimbursement rates.

St. Louis-based Ascension Health, the largest Catholic hospital system, announced Monday that it was looking at some dramatic changes for the facility, including sale or closure.

The hospital has struggled to stay afloat at times in the past several years, at one point proposing a merger with University in 1991 that was nixed by the Federal Trade Commission.

The Augusta area has not had a major hospital close since the early '50s, when City and Lamar hospitals were closed to open University, said medical historian Russell Moores, who was medical director of St. Joseph's Hospice unit from 1996 to 1998.

"This is such a crying shame to think that a wonderful little hospital like St. Joseph has no place in modern American health care" next to more profit-driven competitors, Dr. Moores said. "That's really a terrible indictment of the United States right now."

If that building should close, the physicians clustered around it would likely move, probably to University, said Augusta allergist Terrence Cook, the vice chairman of the board of trustees for the Richmond County Medical Society.

"I'm sure it's a concern for any physician who has his office within a block or two of that hospital," Dr. Cook said. "There are certain specialties in medicine where you need proximity to a hospital. I'm thinking particularly about obstetricians."

It might also mean a bed shortage at times, which Augusta hospitals have faced during cold and flu season. Both University and Medical College of Georgia Hospital went on diversion at times this past winter, where ambulances have to be redirected to other facilities, said J. Larry Read, the CEO of University Health Care System. He said it would be "premature" to speculate about St. Joseph folding or its impact, although he said University could absorb additional patients and physicians.

Some physicians blamed Blue Cross, which accounted for a third of St. Joseph's business before the two severed ties earlier this year after failing to renegotiate rates. Blue Cross spokesman Charlie Harman rejected that claim.

"They came to us and wanted what I believed to be excessive increases this past spring that were inconsistent with the market, both in Augusta and the rest of Georgia," he said. "I certainly regret any difficulties they may be encountering."

Reach Tom Corwin at (706) 823-3213 or tom.corwin@augustachronicle.com.