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‘Defend Our Hospitals’ by Dismantling CON

“The sole reason we formed the Northwest Georgia Hospital Coalition is simple: to fight for access to care. We are not here to pick winners and losers- or impact profits and losses- only to do what is right by our community and families.” 

Those remarks by Coalition Chairman Jonathan Connell occurred during the “Defend our Hospital” community rally in Fort Oglethorpe on August 15. The event featured nearly 70 concerned citizens and a slate of local elected officials raising community awareness in support for the proposed CHI Memorial Hospital hospital in Ringgold. 

The Coalition was formed as a nonprofit by citizens and elected officials in Catoosa, Dade and Walker Counties as an organized response due to their inability to proceed with building a new hospital. 

Yet with financing and community support behind the hospital, why the need for a rally? 

Because the existing CHI Memorial is currently located in Fort Oglethorpe and the proposed site is five miles away, approval for the new hospital is required by the Georgia Department of Community Health, thanks to the state’s Certificate of Need (CON) law. Despite the state granting approval for the new hospital in April, HCA’s Parkridge Health System in East Ridge, Tennessee filed an appeal in May which halts CHI Memorial from moving forward with their new facility. 

Listening to the speakers during the rally, it became apparent how HCA is an easy villain in this story. Namely, they are a for-profit health system in a neighboring state. 

One local County Commissioner at the event even acknowledged the inherent cynicism in the Parkridge appeal by revealing his interactions with their CEO. “He told us sitting there in his office, ‘I know I can’t stop that hospital from being built. But I know I can delay it for many years.’ That’s their whole strategy and that’s so shallow to me.”

As a result of this public awareness campaign, the Department of Community Health has announced a public hearing in September to review whether an out-of-state entity has any legal standing to oppose a health facility in Georgia. Yet even if the Department rules in CHI Memorial’s favor, will this ruling apply retroactively, or is this community in for a prolonged and expensive legal fight on its way to a new hospital? 

Meanwhile, several in attendance expressed their continued support of the CON system to me, “just not in this case.” 

On my drive home I passed by another hospital, Hamilton Medical Center, twenty miles south in Dalton. Hamilton has not opposed the new CHI Memorial, but what if they did? What would the passionate appeal and rush to action be at the state level if it was just another Georgia hospital opposing the project? 

Unfortunately, other communities across the state are struggling with issues like this. Lee County in southwest Georgia is still waiting on a new hospital after their CON was initially approved in 2017. 

It’s too bad they’re not closer to Tallahassee.