Originally created 04/12/06

County's medical future bright



Robert Clark is building a new physician office building in Columbia County, but he sees something bigger for his area on the distant horizon.

"I do envision a hospital in Columbia County," said Dr. Clark, CEO of the Center for Primary Care. "I just don't think it's there in the next five years."

And it might take a change in state law, hospital officials said.

At a forum Tuesday held by the Columbia County Chamber of Commerce, Augusta hospital executives confessed their deep interest in the rapidly growing county and outlined plans to serve it.

On its Evans campus, University Hospital is adding an imaging center and mulling over plans for a fourth physician office building there, said J. Larry Read, CEO of University Health Care System.

"We're creating a destination there for outpatient services," he said. "We'll be able to do everything on that campus virtually except have beds" for inpatient care.

Columbia County is one of three growth areas targeted by MCG Health Inc., and it now accounts for about 20 percent of the health system's volume, said CEO Don Snell, whose nonprofit company runs Medical College of Georgia Hospital and Clinics.

"We will have a fairly significant physical presence out here within the next couple of years as a key part of our strategy," he said.

The Center for Primary Care will be adding its fifth office building, this time on Belair Road near Interstate 20, with four physicians, Dr. Clark said. The new location should provide easier access for patients in the western part of the county and should show the dedication to Columbia County that the center has had since it first went there in 1993, Dr. Clark said.

"We've always committed ourselves to bringing health care to where people live," he said.

But whether that will mean a full-fledged hospital is doubtful for now, particularly in light of the Certificate of Need, a state license required to add hospital beds and certain expensive equipment, officials said.

The state looks at the Augusta market as a 15-county area that already has enough hospital beds, Mr. Snell said. And most of the population in Columbia County is still in the area closest to Richmond County, where patients have reasonable travel time to Augusta hospitals, he said.

"I think Certificate of Need would prohibit that today from happening," Mr. Read said. "But I think everybody would like to be positioned" should the opportunity arise.

Mr. Snell said that as the population continues to change, as it did in the Atlanta area, "there's just going to have to be some consideration given to moving beds from the downtown area" to Columbia County.

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