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FLETCHER: Hospital Authority must exert oversight

Opinion column

Carlton Fletcher

Carlton Fletcher

What started out as a whisper slowly turned into a scream.

— Ben Harper

And so the question becomes, now that the FTC has achieved what it set out to do — attained another level of regulatory authority — and moved on, what happens with Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital?

Do the individuals who took up the anti-Phoebe mantle, spending their own time and money to fight an uphill battle with an ally that, as someone much more informed than I said at the beginning of this showdown was only out to get another level of regulatory control — the FTC is, after all, an agency of the fenderal government — pack it in? Or do they fight on in an attempt to halt what they feel is a Phoebe takeover of health care in the region?

And does Phoebe, looking to make up for what everyone agrees is a humongous overpayment ($195 million) for the Hospital Corporation of America-owned Palmyra Medical Center, unfettered now by local competition, work diligently to keep soaring health care costs in check or does it look to bring in even more money through higher prices?

Say what you will about him, Phoebe CEO Joel Wernick is perhaps the shrewdest businessman in Southwest Georgia. Even those who oppose him — and there is a level of jealousy that enters into that mix for many — acknowledge that Wernick has enjoyed amazing success with the business of Phoebe. Many pay him the ultimate compliment: If you had a business, wouldn’t you want Wernick running it for you?

The Phoebe CEO told Dougherty County Commission Chairman Jeff Sinyard, himself caught off guard by Phoebe’s announcement that it had purchased Palmyra, that the hospital would make three significant concessionary pledges to the community: That it would keep on as many of the former Palmyra employees as possible, that it would keep the cost of health care as manageable as possible, and that it would make a payment in lieu of taxes equal to what Palmyra had been paying.

The third leg of that agreement is part of the settlement Phoebe reached with the FTC. It will pay a yearly PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) of $628,653.62 for the next five years, the amount that HCA/Palmyra paid in taxes in 2011. That payment will be re-evaluated in 2018. And Sinyard said after Monday’s Dougherty County Commission meeting that Phoebe has kept on “around 90 percent” of the former Palmyra employees impacted by the merger.

The third leg of Wernick’s promise? That’s a question that will be answered in time. But local industries, in particular Procter & Gamble officials, have been complaining for years that Phoebe’s costs far exceed such costs in other communities where their facilities are located.

With no competing local hospital to which costs for care may be compared, it would seem that the Hospital Authority of Albany-Dougherty County would play a critical role in the community’s health care future. Such an authority is charged with maintaining the kind of oversight that would keep local costs in check.

But, as Phoebe opponents have claimed — and with valid reason — the local Hospital Authority has shown little authority in its supposed management of health care in the community, serving instead as more of a rubber stamp for Phoebe. If there is to be a check on future health care costs in the community, the role of this organization must be re-evaluated and redefined.

No one can put a price on the value that a quality health care facility like Phoebe has on a community. But someone has to try. And in this new health care world order in Southwest Georgia, where Phoebe now stands alone, citizens deserve to have a board in place with the conviction and the oversight authority to do just that.

The Hospital Authority is appointed by the County Commission. Any guarantee of affordable health care in the community must start there.

Email Metro Editor Carlton Fletcher at carlton.fletcher@albanyherald.com.