Just days after two lawsuits were filed to block a new hospital in Lee County, that legal opposition is already partially unraveling.
The Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals — which confirmed Monday that it was suing a state agency for allowing a certificate of need for a hospital in the southwest Georgia county — said Tuesday that it had dropped the suit.
The nonprofit hospital group’s president, Monty Veazey, said in a statement that “the validity of the regulation at issue’’ will be decided by litigation elsewhere in Georgia, specifically a dispute between Doctors Hospital of Augusta and the state’s Department of Community Health over a proposed hospital in Columbia County.
Veazey said the Alliance of Community Hospitals “determined that it is in the best interests of its members to devote the association’s resources to other ongoing initiatives to protect safety-net hospitals.’’
The other entity suing over the certificate of need, or CON, for Lee County is the commission of Dougherty County, just to the south.
On Tuesday, the Dougherty Commission held a meeting to discuss pending litigation, the Albany Herald reported. While that could refer to other legal disputes, including a class-action opioid lawsuit, the Lee County hospital battle is a hot local issue in southwest Georgia.
Before going into executive session, Dougherty Commissioners Ewell Lyle and Lamar Hudgins said they had no idea of how the Lee County dispute would turn out.
“I want to go on the record now and say that I voted against this lawsuit,” Hudgins said, according to the Herald. “If Lee County wants a hospital, let them have it. We should not be messing around in another county’s affairs.”
Chris Cohilas, chair of the Dougherty County Commission, told GHN on Monday he disagrees with how the state has handled the Lee County request. He said the Department of Community Health disregarded CON rules by failing to assess the negative financial impact on Dougherty County when it granted a certificate of need for Lee County Medical Center.
The new hospital would lead to higher property taxes for Dougherty citizens and a loss of jobs for the county, said Cohilas, an Albany attorney. “Our goal is to have the Department of Community Health to actually apply the law.”
The Alliance of Community Hospitals, while dropping its lawsuit, reiterated its strong support of Georgia’s CON process, which governs health care construction and services in the state. Critics of the current CON system say it is too restrictive.
Veazey said the hospital group “will continue to challenge efforts of for-profit companies to weaken the CON program or otherwise circumvent the CON goals and objectives of avoiding unnecessary duplication of services, and planning for health care services based on objective, community-focused standards.’’
Certificate-of-need disputes often pit municipalities against each other, leading to legislative fights when the Georgia General Assembly is in session. Some state House members are expected to get together this summer to analyze the CON process. Individual lawmakers told GHN during the recent legislative session that they planned to tackle the regulations, which play a powerful role in the health care business.
Hospital industry leaders say they’re anticipating that the House Rural Development Council will develop proposals to reform CON.
Lee County wants to build a new $120 million, 60-bed hospital to compete with Phoebe Putney Health System, based in Albany in Dougherty County. Phoebe Putney has been dominant in the southwest Georgia health care market for years.
Last year, the state awarded Lee County a CON to build the new facility.
Dougherty County, by filing suit, “is obviously trying to stop us from building a hospital,’’ Lee County Commissioner Billy Mathis told GHN on Monday.
Mathis said Wednesday that the hospital alliance’s dropping of its suit represented “a good day for us.”
“The only impediment left is the Dougherty County Commission. We’re hopeful they’ll do the same thing,” Mathis said.
Mathis reiterated that Lee County’s goal is to end Phoebe Putney’s “monopoly on health care” in the region.
Lee County’s effort to get a hospital was buoyed by nearby Crisp Regional Hospital’s recent decision to drop its opposition to the effort.