Change Georgia laws for better health care access, advocates urge in Augusta meeting

Change Georgia laws for better health care access, advocates urge in Augusta meeting

By Joe Hotchkiss, The Augusta Chronicle

Several of Georgia’s regulations governing hospitals should be changed or scrapped to give patients better access to health care, advocates and policy analysts told a state House committee in Augusta. 

The Georgia House Study Committee on Certificate of Need Modernization convened at Augusta University on Tuesday morning to hear testimony and question experts about the current efficacy of, and possible improvements to, the state’s certificate of need process. 

Georgia is one of 35 U.S. states with a CON program to help regulate hospitals, care facilities and medical services. Anyone seeking to build a medical facility in Georgia is required to apply for a certificate and justify the need for the facility. 

Critics have said that Georgia’s CON program’s structure puts the state’s rural areas at a disadvantage, in sparsely populated communities where timely and efficient heath care often is at a premium. A CON is sometimes called a “competitor’s veto” by detractors because regulations can allow larger health care providers to publicly oppose potential smaller competitors and keep them out of the marketplace. 

Katie Chubb has been trying to start the Augusta Birth Center locally to provide a health alternative for expectant mothers. She told committee members Tuesday about laboriously filling out the 800-plus-page CON application – and how the application was denied in 2021 after other hospitals complained that the birth center wasn’t needed. 

“It was competition, and this is monopolization,” she said.

Liz Coyle, executive director of the consumer advocacy group Georgia Watch, said her organization was encouraged by the Georgia Department of Community Health’s proposal earlier this year to require a hospital to issue a 180-day written public notice before any proposed changes to the hospital’s services.

Marietta-based Wellstar Health Systems closed, on short notice, two metro-Atlanta hospitals in 2022 that served majority-Black populations. 

“Currently hospitals like Wellstar were only required to provide 30 days’ notice. That was one of the reasons that occurrence was so incredibly devastating and upsetting,” Coyle said. “We believe that while we support DCH adopting this amendment, we’re asking the Legislature to consider making it the law.” 

Augusta physician and state Rep. Mark Newton, R-Augusta, sits on the House CON study committee. 

“Georgia’s a very diverse state,” he said. “People’s desire for center-of-excellence-type care is getting more prevalent, where people are wanting them or their family members to go to a place that has a volume that supports excellence in care, whether it’s OB care, cardiac care, orthopedic care, cancer care.” The CON issue has “a lot of moving parts.” 

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