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End of CON program may boost Bamberg 24/7 ER plan

End of CON program may boost Bamberg 24/7 ER plan

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The chief executive officer of a company planning to bring 24/7 emergency health care to Bamberg County says it is still studying the impact of the suspension of the Certificate of Need program.

County officials, however, say doing away with the CON program will remove a layer of government bureaucracy for rural counties trying to secure emergency care for their residents and will also help stimulate the economy through free enterprise.

The Bamberg County Hospital Board closed the hospital’s doors in April 2012. In September, the board members announced they were working to establish a partnership with Hospital Corporation of America for 24/7 emergency health care services. The board agreed to sign a Letter of Interest with Colleton Medical Center HCA South Atlantic Hospitals on Jan. 15.

During a June 24 meeting, council passed a resolution supporting Colleton Medical Center’s plan to apply for a Certificate of Need from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control for the development of a standalone emergency room. The Hospital Board passed the resolution on June 19.

Hospitals must seek a state CON to purchase any equipment costing more than $600,000, build new health care facilities or make other substantial changes.

DHEC suspended the CON program after the legislature sustained Gov. Nikki Haley’s veto of $1.7 million to run it.

South Carolina health officials in a lawsuit filed Monday asked the state Supreme Court to decide if the agency can suspend the program. DHEC has also asked the justices to take up the case directly, bypassing lower courts, according to the lawsuit.

DHEC spokesman Jim Beasley released a statement that reads in part: “While the law is clear that DHEC cannot reappropriate funds in conflict with the state budget, a number of Certificate of Need stakeholders signaled their intention to file lawsuits to achieve a greater level of certainty.

“In an effort to avoid a multitude of costly, duplicative legal actions, DHEC petitioned the S.C. Supreme Court to resolve the legal questions presented by these events. ... DHEC’s construction and licensing programs that regulate health care facilities were not affected by the House of Representatives’ vote to sustain the governor’s veto.” Suspension of the CON program presents no public safety threat, DHEC stated.

Colleton Medical Center CEO Brad Griffin said, “We are unsure how the courts are going to rule on the decision that DHEC made about the CON regulation. At this time, our intention is to move forward with the planning of the freestanding ED (emergency department).”

Dr. Danette McAlhaney, chairman of the Bamberg County Hospital Board, said the county council and the hospital board have been working with Colleton Medical Center for more than a year to develop a 24/7 emergency room facility. She said she doesn’t know what impact the CON program’s suspension will have on that effort.

“I think we’re going to have to give it a couple of weeks and sort of see what happens. It’s interesting, but we don’t want to assume it means something it doesn’t,” McAlhaney said. “I sort of understand why the program’s there, but I sort of sit on the fence because, in one way, I think that free enterprise works very well.”

She added, “It’ll be interesting to see how much building goes on in Columbia and larger areas. I think we’ll see a lot of freestanding surgical centers if it goes through, which may stimulate our economy a little bit. My opinion has always been that if you provide good service, you maintain your customer base.”

Haley issued a statement on the CON program, contending the CON program “restricts access, drives down quality and drives up costs.”

“We’re for competition and, since taking office, have fought for better health for all South Carolinians — that’s what this is all about. This is not a novel idea — 14 other states don’t have Certificate of Need programs,” she stated. “We have long pushed for the removal of CON, and we appreciate members of the House agreeing with us that it is time to change the statute and permanently rid our state of this political obstacle to quality care.”

State Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Denmark, said, “I voted in favor of sustaining the governor’s veto. There’s no other county that’s been faced like Bamberg County over the past decade when it comes to health care services. We went through the legislative process, and this was just another step in the legislative process.

“I look forward to working with DHEC and the Governor’s Office to make sure my constituents have access to quality health care.”

Sellers said government bureaucracy for rural counties trying to secure emergency care for their residents will be reduced. He said he looks forward to welcoming the $5 million investment HCA plans to make in Bamberg County.

“This is great news,” Bamberg County Administrator Joey Preston said. “This provides HCA the opportunity to expedite construction of a standalone ER for Bamberg County. We thank the governor and the state delegation for their leadership and help.”

State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, however, said the veto of funds to support the CON program signals something different.

“I just think it’s a back-door way to end regulation of expansion and acquisition in the health care field,” she said. “It’s open season now for profit-making medical care providers. And when the focus is purely on profit, struggling and surviving communities and people will be the losers in that kind of system.”

Cobb-Hunter added, “There was some agreement that the CON process needed reviewing with an eye toward revising it in some way, but I don’t think anyone believes that it needs to be totally done away with. And this is from a governor who claims to be concerned about taxpayers and their money.

“What this will do is simply drive up the cost of health care and limit access for a lot of communities and people.”

dgleaton@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5534.

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