MCG Columbia County plan opposed

The group representing the Medical College of Georgia's physicians wants to build a $34 million surgery and imaging center in Columbia County, but it is facing strenuous objections from other Augusta providers, who claim it is not needed.

Physicians Practice Group has filed for a state-required Certificate of Need on what it is calling MCG Medical Associates Ambulatory Center, to be built near the corner of Knob Hill and Washington roads.

The Georgia Department of Community Health had asked for additional information on the application by Tuesday, but the group has asked for a 30-day extension.

That pushes the decision back to Sept. 20, the state said.

The 65,000-square-foot center would have three operating rooms, two procedure rooms, an imaging center with a CT scanner and a clinic with 45 exam rooms.

In its filing, the physicians group acknowledges that there is not a need for new ambulatory surgery operating rooms as defined by the state, but it asks for an exception because it claims only its physicians would be involved in physician training or research.

The application includes a copy of the Tripp Umbach report on the need for expanding medical education in the state to meet a looming physician shortage, a report MCG is using to justify expanding the School of Medicine to satellite campuses in Athens, Savannah and Albany.

"The report concludes that additional training sites are needed statewide to correct (the physician) shortfall," the Certificate of Need application reads. "The proposed project will allow the largest provider of medical education, MCG, to utilize the facility for medical student education. The quality benefits will accrue to the residents of the service area as well as other Georgians statewide."

In a letter opposing the application, University Hospital points out that Tripp Umbach does not mention the need for an ambulatory surgery center. Others opposing the move say teaching is going on at the other surgery centers, particularly the ones where MCG's clinical faculty members have privileges.

Currently, less than half of the outpatient operating capacity is being used, several Augusta providers said.

The MCG physician group also said the new center would help Medicaid, indigent and uninsured patients.

The group said 8.6 percent of its patients in 2007 were charity or indigent patients, and pledged that at least 5 percent of the gross adjusted revenue at the new center would be for such cases.

The state requires such centers to provide at least 3 percent of revenue for indigent and charity care.

Several of those opposed to the move pointed out that Columbia County's average income is well above the average for the area and that some surgery centers in the county already struggle to meet the 3 percent indigent requirement.

Augusta Surgical Center said the county's poverty rate is only 6.7 percent, the fifth lowest in the state.

"If PPG was concerned with improving access for underserved groups, it would locate its proposed facility in a less affluent area such as South Augusta," its filing states.

Others said the school might have better uses for its money.

"MCG is currently struggling to raise funds necessary to construct a needed replacement dental school building while (the physicians group) is proposing a $34 million project that will duplicate existing facilities with available capacity," Trinity Hospital of Augusta wrote.

University officials called the project "a gross misapplication of limited health care financial resources."

The MCG physicians group's president and CEO, Curt M. Steinhart, said he did not want to comment on that.

"Everybody is entitled to their opinion, and I guess what you're stating is that other people at this point don't agree with our opinion," Dr. Steinhart said. "... We will answer the requests of the department and do that in as rapid a time as we can."

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

WHAT IT MEANS TO YOU

Georgia and many other states require a license called a Certificate of Need on new health care services and equipment. You must get a Certificate of Need in Georgia if you want to:

- Buy a piece of equipment over $1 million

- Spend more than $2.5 million in construction

- Build a physician-owned, single-specialty ambulatory surgery center that costs more than $2.5 million

- Build a joint venture ambulatory surgery center costing more than $5 million

The belief is that by regulating expensive equipment and the distribution of health care, it will lead to more efficient use of existing resources and limit unneeded or duplicated services that drive health care costs up.