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Phoebe taking Palmyra to court

ALBANY -- A month ago, officials with Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital announced their intent to take the battle regarding Palmyra Medical Center's potential birthing center into the courtroom.

On Tuesday, they proved they were true to their word.

Phoebe has filed a petition for judicial review against Palmyra and the Georgia Department of Community Health regarding the Dec. 18, 2009 final order empowering Palmyra to offer Level 1 perinatal service in a 10-county service area that includes Dougherty County.

"DCH's decision to authorize Palmyra to establish an unnecessary and duplicative new basic perinatal service will inevitably have a direct effect on life and death or potential permanent disability for a number of babies and their mothers who seek perinatal services in a Dougherty County hospital," the complaint reads in part.

Phoebe CEO Joel Wernick said there is no need for a duplication of services, and that the decision rendered was done so from errors committed during the Certificate of Need review process.

"They rendered a decision we feel was an error," he said. "Our interest is to make sure they (the DCH) don't violate their own policy."

A media representative with DCH said the agency does not comment on pending litigation.

Officials estimate that 3,000 babies are born at Phoebe annually, a rate they say has not changed in two decades.

Wernick denied that Phoebe was opposing the DCH decision in an effort to institute a monopoly on health care services.

"Choice is often times a misused word," he said. "The choice is very obvious. Choice to me comes down to quality of care for the community."

Brandi Benford's son, Garrett, was born Monday and transferred to the hospital's NICU from Sumter County. As a former employee of Phoebe, she said she wouldn't want to go anywhere else.

"It's very important to have my child well taken care of," she said. "I used to work at Phoebe. I would always choose Phoebe."

The Phoebe Sumter Medical Center facility currently under construction in Americus will offer Level I and Level II services. There are three levels of care.

Palmyra's proposal to provide obstetrical services includes developing a new women's center that will offer labor and delivery services as well as basic inpatient care for new mothers and newborns without complications.

"Palmyra is disappointed that Phoebe has gone to great and costly lengths to prevent a competitive environment for obstetrical services," said Palmyra CEO Mark Rader in a statement Wednesday. "It is well-documented that other large communities in Georgia and across the country have multiple hospital options for maternity services. It works well everywhere, and it would work well here. The public knows a maternity service at Palmyra will not diminish neonatal services, patient safety or quality of care. This issue is about making sure mothers-to-be don't have a choice or access to the resulting innovations Palmyra will offer.

"Palmyra will continue to fight to maintain its Certificate of Need to deliver babies, and to make sure all citizens have a choice for this important health care service. We've played fair and by the rules for 20 years. Now is the time for Phoebe to do the same."

Phoebe's complaint went on to say that at least 15-18 babies delivered annually at Palmyra with unanticipated complications would have to be transported to Phoebe.

The CON for Basic Perinatal Services was filed in August 2008. The DCH approved the hospital's application on Jan. 9, 2009, a decision that was appealed by Phoebe nearly a month later. In October, hearing officer Ellwood Oakley III affirmed the CON for Palmyra. The hearing officer's decision was affirmed by DCH Commissioner Dr. Rhonda Medows in December, after which Phoebe had 30 days to file its case with the court system.

The case has been assigned to Dougherty Superior Court Judge Denise Marshall.