ATLANTA – The state should require hospitals planning to close or eliminate core medical services to give 180 days written notice, the head of a statewide consumer advocacy group said Tuesday.
That six months lead time should involve a review that would include a third-party assessment and a public hearing, Liz Coyle, executive director of Georgia Watch, told members of a Georgia House study committee meeting in Augusta.
Wellstar Health System provided only 30 days notice last year when it closed the Atlanta Medical Center, Coyle said.
“It happened so fast, and the community is still devastated,” she said. “We want this to be a much more public process.”
The study committee is looking for ways to modernize Georgia’s Certificate of Need (CON) law governing capital investments in the construction of new hospitals or the addition of new health-care services. The law requires project applicants to demonstrate a need for the new hospital or service in a given community.
Coyle said 180 days is how long it typically takes applicants to go through the CON review process, so it makes sense to require that much lead time before a hospital can shut its doors.
While the Georgia Department of Community Health is currently considering a 180-day notice requirement, she said she would like to see the General Assembly codify it into state law.
Hospital closures aren’t just affecting the Atlanta region. Jimmy Lewis, CEO of HomeTown Health LLC, told the committee 15 rural hospitals in Georgia have closed in the last 20 years.
“When we lose a hospital, we lose an economic generator,” Lewis said. “When these close, that community goes away.”
Coyle said requiring hospitals to give 180 days notice of an impending closure would give community leaders time to identify and obtain sources of funding to keep the facility open. She cited a poll Georgia Watch conducted in April, working with the University of Georgia, that found 82.9% of respondents support requiring a six-month review of proposed hospital closures.
Coyle suggested the lack of transparency in the current closure process may be contributing to the number of closures.
But Rep. Mark Newton, R-Augusta, an emergency room physician, said requiring that much public notice of a closure could aggravate the financial problems a hospital is having by prompting vendors to cancel contracts and employees to leave for more secure jobs.
Coyle also recommended other ways of increasing transparency besides the 180-day notice of a hospital closure, including legislation requiring hospital administrators to file quarterly financial reports that would be accessible to the public.
But Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, who chairs the House Public Health Committee, said such a mandate could be overly burdensome for small hospitals.
“The cost of people to do this is beyond the resources of rural hospitals,” she said.
Coyle said the resource problem could be solved by getting state government accountants to compile the required reports.
The study committee on CON modernization will hold its next meeting in Albany before wrapping up its work with a final meeting in Atlanta. The panel is expected to make recommendations in time for the 2024 General Assembly session starting in January.