A suburban turf war between two hospital systems took another regulatory turn Tuesday, with WellStar Health System announcing that a state agency had approved...

A suburban turf war between two hospital systems took another regulatory turn Tuesday, with WellStar Health System announcing that a state agency had approved its ambulatory surgery center project.

WellStar’s surgery center, part of its proposed “Health Park’’ complex in east Cobb County, had been opposed by Northside Hospital.

“This is a milestone decision for this project and, more importantly, the residents of east Cobb,’’ said WellStar spokesman Keith Bowermaster in a statement.

The state had given original approval to the WellStar surgery center last September, but Northside had appealed that decision, saying the project was subject to ambulatory surgery rules and, in any event, was not needed.

A Department of Community Health spokeswoman confirmed the ruling to GHN.

The announcement came just a week after news that state regulators — brushing aside a challenge by WellStar — had approved Northside’s plan to relocate its Cherokee County hospital.

The two nonprofit health systems are vying for the large population of privately insured, affluent residents in the suburbs north of Atlanta. Large hospital systems also compete to have the best physician networks to maintain high patient satisfaction.

Northside and WellStar have waged their fight through Georgia’s certificate-of-need (CON) regulations, which give the state some authority over the expansion and construction of medical facilities, as well as over services such as heart surgery.

Hospitals have often used the CON process to challenge competitors’ projects.

“It may be just ingrained into the fabric of hospital systems, that they will oppose competitors’ [CON] applications,’’ said Charles Goldberg, an Atlanta-based health care consultant.

There’s a great economic incentive to build new facilities in areas that have high levels of privately insured individuals, Goldberg added.

Bowermaster, in the WellStar statement, said of the state’s approval, “In an August 2010 consumer survey, area residents indicated a strong desire for the WellStar east Cobb Health Park. Any further appeals by our competitor may needlessly delay this much needed and sought-after outpatient service.”

A Northside spokesman, Russ Davis, said in a statement Tuesday to GHN regarding the WellStar center approval: “We just learned about this decision and have no comment at this time.”

Last week, Northside announced that Department of Community Health regulators had agreed that its $250 million hospital relocation project in Canton is exempt from certificate-of-need laws. Relocation projects within three miles of an existing facility are not subject to the CON laws as long as no new or expanded clinical services are offered at the new site, the hospital said.

WellStar’s four-story Health Park in east Cobb is expected to cost $80 million and will open late in 2013. It will include family practice, internal medicine, OB/GYN, pediatric and specialty care physician offices; imaging and laboratory services; a women’s health center; physical medicine center; urgent care; an education center and wellness center; and a sleep center.

The health system is also constructing another one-stop-shop Health Park in Acworth in northwest Cobb County, which is expected to open next summer.

“This is a new concept, and we will be one of few in Georgia with this approach,” Joe Brywczynski, a  WellStar senior vice president, said of the Acworth project in a Marietta Daily Journal article.

“This will be comprehensive, with a commingling of many services and physicians’ offices,” Brywczynski said in the article. “It will bring a new level of convenience to residents in this part of the county. And with the screenings and wellness services, you don’t have to feel sick to access the services.”

WellStar runs two hospitals in Marietta, one in Austell, which is also in Cobb County, and one each in Douglas and Paulding counties. Northside, besides its Cherokee County location in Canton, operates hospitals in Atlanta and Cumming.

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Andy Miller

Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News

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