ALBANY — As Lee County officials face another wave of questions about the ongoing saga of the proposed construction of a $135 million medical center in the county, they say a new potential monkey wrench has been thrown into the works by Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital.

Lee Commission Chairman Billy Mathis, answering questions about the status of the Lee Medical Center, conceded Tuesday, “Everybody probably wants to know. When are we going to start?” But then he mentioned Phoebe as a possible hurdle in the project’s progress. “One thing that has happened that has not been in the media is Phoebe Putney has filed an objection to our hospital ... which is very disappointing,” Mathis said.

Asked about any grounds for objection by Phoebe, the Lee Commission chairman said, “Phoebe Putney CEO Scott Steiner would be the best person to ask that question. I was hopeful when Phoebe got a new CEO, they would stop their heavy-handed tactics. But obviously that’s a pipe dream. The Federal Trade Commission has been notified, and they are monitoring Phoebe’s actions. But again, we are disappointed because we are just trying to expand health care in the area, and Phoebe is trying to stifle that.”

Steiner said Phoebe has done nothing that would prevent construction of the hospital.

“Phoebe has never taken a position on the merits of the Certificate of Need (CON) for the proposed Lee County Medical Center, and we have done nothing to impede any progress on the project,” Steiner said in response to questions from The Herald. “In an effort to protect the fairness and integrity of Georgia’s CON rules, Phoebe felt obligated to file an objection to the request for a second extension of LCMC’s CON, since there is nothing under the law that would allow a second extension. That objection is now moot, since LCMC withdrew their extension request.

“LCMC has represented to the Department of Community Health that it has begun construction of the hospital and has met its legal obligations under its CON. Our preliminary review of their submission shows no evidence LCMC has entered into an enforceable construction contract, has secured public financing for the project or begun any construction work on the project – all legal requirements set forth under Georgia’s CON statute for the hospital project to move forward.”

The CON extension sought and obtained by Lee County officials included the requirements mentioned by Steiner and stipulated that construction on the project be under way by June 21. An inspection of the property offers no evidence of construction work other than minimal grade work and a pile of drain pipes on the site.

In May of 2019, Lee County filed a request for a second extension to its Certificate of Need for the hospital. However, the county later withdrew its request.

“The reason we withdrew it is that when you get a CON, you have an implementation date,” Mathis said. “If you meet that date, you don’t have to get an extension. To meet that date, you have to do three things: You have to have architectural plans that have been approved by the state of Georgia; our plans have been sent to the state and approved. You have to do some site work; we are actually moving dirt out there now. You have to have an executed contractor’s agreement, and we have done that. So we have met all three of those things.

“I think (the objection) was a waste of (Phoebe’s) time, to be honest with you, because we met our implementation date, which is all we had to do. I can see them filing other things in the future. We’re going to push ahead. They have never thwarted us to this point, and we don’t see them thwarting us in the future. They were trying to put the brakes on it, but they weren’t successful.”

Mathis said that the proposed Lee Medical Center was caught in a perfect storm during which hospitals in Georgia suddenly entered into a frenzy of merger and consolidation options, pulling the focus away from smaller projects. Then COVID hit, and all hospitals turned their focus on the virus, setting the business side of their operations aside.

“Everything just kind of ground to a halt,” he said. “Next week, we are starting back into negotiations with several hospital operators that have partnered with us on the Lee County Medical Center.”

Mathis said he is disappointed with Phoebe’s objection.

“This is disappointing to us because we are trying to provide the citizens of this area with an option in health care,” the Lee Commission chairman said. “The perfect example is during this COVID situation, we would have been much better off having two hospitals instead of just one hospital.

“The goal is to expand health care in the region. There are no negatives in expanding health care for the people in the region. The only negative is, I guess, for Phoebe when it comes to money. It’s all about money.”

Steiner said that in making the objection, Phoebe was following the process set forth by the state in order to “protect our rights down the road.”

“In the middle of the worst financial year for hospitals in the history of modern American medicine, Phoebe has not furloughed or laid off a single employee,” the Phoebe Health System CEO said. “We have continued to move forward with plans to expand access to care. Our commitment to providing comprehensive, quality health care to our entire region of Georgia remains as strong as ever, and nothing will distract us from our ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic and our dedication to our vision – to make every life we touch better.”

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