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Hospitals are big business, but they can get too big

Guest commentary

J. Price Corr Jr.

J. Price Corr Jr.

First of all, let me introduce myself. I am an Albany native who came back here 31 years ago to practice medicine. I love the place of my birth, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, and I love my community.

Recent statements in the press have disturbed me regarding the truth of the Phoebe North acquisition by the Hospital Authority of Dougherty County. The Authority accepted $196 million from Phoebe Putney Health System (not Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital) to purchase HCA Palmyra Hospital. Palmyra Hospital was not about to "pull out" of our community and was maintaining business very well, but was about to do better.

They received approval from the state to offer obstetrical services, which they had been seeking for as long as I can remember. HCA had sued Phoebe Putney in the early 2000s regarding their request to the state to deliver babies. Now they were going to be able to do so. This meant there would be an equal competitive playing field to negotiate health care contracts with insurance companies, industry and patient groups. They had a strong master plan to grow and participate as a taxpaying health care provider in our community. The lawsuit also becomes an active issue.

Was HCA Palmyra for sale? No more so than my truck is for sale. My truck meets my needs, is not old and is not for sale; however, if you want to offer me 2-3 times what my truck is worth, you can have it. So HCA Palmyra did not pull out. They were ushered out by $196 million in their pocket.

Phoebe Putney Hospital did not buy HCA Palmyra. Phoebe Putney Health System, which leases Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, gave the money to an agent of the county to buy it for them, lease it back to them for their use. They tried to use the Hospital Authority Act passed in the 1940s and this did not pass the truth test with the Federal Trade Commission or the Supreme Court. Then they tried to get a bill through the state Legislature that would only apply to Phoebe Putney and not to any other area of the state. It failed this session. Now they are contacting other major hospital systems in the state to help them lobby their case.

None of my comments are meant to hurt Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital, which is a large economic factor in our community. Representatives of Phoebe Health System have permeated every board and business entity in our community. All of Southwest Georgia is infiltrated with the Phoebe influence. Just look at the influence Phoebe has over major entities in our community, including our government officials. A prominent Phoebe executive once told me that influence and control were cousins.

We already have one major employer who claims we have the highest health cost of any of their plants in the country. In fact, they are sending their elective heart surgeries to Atlanta and housing families cheaper than they say they can do it locally. One of my employees became pregnant in her mid-30s with insurance by no OB coverage. She drove to Columbus and delivered via c-section for $9,500. She was expected to pay as an uninsured at Phoebe $20,000.

I understand that hospitals are big business, but they can be too big. What is best for Phoebe Putney Health System is not necessarily what is best for Albany/Dougherty County, but what is best for Albany/Dougherty County is best for Phoebe Putney health System. By reading between the lines what was written in the local paper recently, we may be confusing these principles.

The FTC sees an economic move which long term would be damaging to our entire community. They realize the reality of allowing one large entity to control health care costs. This could be a threat to the overall well-being of the community. What will a perspective industry think if it talks with an existing industry that tells it there is no competition for health care costs and the local plant has the highest cost per employee in the system?

The Sunday paper says this issue needs to be settled, and I agree. We to ask ourselves why Phoebe Health System gave the money to the county to buy HCA Palmyra in order to lease it back to them to use. Why does a minor give money to an older person to buy something for him to use? Because he cannot buy it directly. The FTC and Supreme Court see through this. Can you?

In summary, HCA didn't pull out. They were offered a deal they could not refuse. Since the acquisition, services at Phoebe North have continued to be meshed with Phoebe Main. However, more and more functions at Phoebe North have been cut. An O.R. room has been dismantled and equipment taken to Phoebe Main. Jobs at Phoebe North have not been preserved and many qualified longtime area residents have left or been let go. Hence the latest FTC restraining order to block any further devaluation of a facility that may not be allowed to mesh with another.

The purpose of buying the market and alleviating the competition is being accomplished. Now, if the Authority is required to lease or see HCA Palmyra Hospital, or Phoebe North, to another entity, rumor has it that it will not be a vacant building.

J. Price Corr Jr., MD, FACS, is with Albany Surgical PC.