Ruling favors Phoebe

Photo by Laura Williams

Photo by Laura Williams

ALBANY, Ga. -- Palmyra Medical Center has had another hurdle thrown at it in its attempt to establish an obstetrics unit.

Dougherty County Superior Court Judge Stephen Goss decided Tuesday to reverse the Georgia Department of Community Health's final order granting Palmyra's Certificate of Need to establish Level 1 perinatal services.

Hearings in regard to the order concluded on May 27, court documents show. Goss' decision was filed Tuesday.

Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital alleged eight errors of law in seeking reversal of the final order. The court determined they could not sustain the grounds for relief in six of those eight.

"It is difficult to understand the final decision when Judge Goss ruled in favor of Palmyra and the Department of Community Health on six of the eight issues argued by Phoebe Putney," said Palmyra CEO Mark Rader in a statement. "The people of this community should now realize more than ever that Phoebe Putney doesn't intend to compete fairly for health care; it intends to continue to monopolize health care and eliminate the public's right to choice.

"We had been encouraged throughout this lengthy certificate of need battle and believed that we would soon offer choice to mothers-to-be.

We had seen that all parties involved outside this local jurisdiction remained impartial, and consistently ruled in favor of Palmyra and our effort to offer the people of Albany a choice for obstetrical services."

Palmyra officials also said they were not sure what step they will take next.

Goss agreed with Phoebe that DCH had improperly attempted to interpret the legislative intent of the Areawide Need Exception and improperly enlarged its scope and application. The court also ruled that there was error concerning the scope and content of the state's initial written decision.

"The 2008 amendment adding the Areawide Need Exception to the CON laws at OCGA 31-6-42(b)(2) is a significant change in the law impacting Palmyra's efforts to obtain CON approval for a basic perinatal service," the judge's decision read.

"However, the Court has found that DCH took that change in the law beyond its plain statutory language and did not adequately address other required factors in light of the DCH interpretation of the exception."

Phoebe filed petitions for judicial review in Dougherty and Sumter counties earlier this year after DCH issued its final order to allow Palmyra to offer obstetrical services to patients in a 10-county area.

Southwestern Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge George Peagler in Sumter County reversed four of seven grounds earlier this month in Phoebe's favor.

"We felt the interpretation of the law was erred, and the judges agreed the state had erred," said Phoebe CEO Joel Wernick.

Phoebe has also contended throughout that there has not been enough population growth to warrant a second unit.

"There has not been an increase in the number of babies born in the area in 20 years," Wernick said. "Any services that mothers would want is here (at the hospital) in a fraction of a second.

"(Palmyra's potential obstetrics unit) would devalue the level of care."

The CON was filed in August 2008, which the DCH approved. Phoebe appealed that decision. In October 2009, DCH Hearing Officer Ellwood Oakley III affirmed the CON. Phoebe filed the petition in the superior court system after DCH Commissioner Dr. Rhonda Medows affirmed Oakley's decision.

"The reason for the CON process is to bring an element of health planning, and Phoebe Putney made the decision to invest in the highest quality obstetrical services," Wernick said.

"This decision is extremely important for the fragile members of society. They are the victors in this."