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Where Georgians live shouldn’t affect access to quality health care

Burt Jones

 

It’s a simple principle: The zip codes of Georgia residents shouldn’t determine their access to quality health care services. Every Georgian, regardless of the population makeup of their county, should have an opportunity to access quality care without driving across the state to receive it.

For far too long, Georgia’s certificate of need or CON laws have enabled large hospital systems to keep the status quo in place, while rural communities and those outside of metro Atlanta continue to experience shortages in access and worsened overall health.

The certificate of need system requires a significant demand for care must be demonstrated to allow a new hospital to be built. While other barriers to expand health care access may exist, it’s evident and clear that our antiquated CON laws are consequential.

A state ranking at the bottom for maternal and infant health, cardiovascular health and other wellness metrics ought to figure out what isn’t working and fix it. Seems simple, right?

Well, that is until the hospital systems who use the existing system to their advantage flood the halls of the General Assembly with horror stories of the sky falling if Georgia’s restrictive CON laws are changed – even in the slightest.

If our health care providers are focused on what’s best for the patient, then why do they continue to fight against changes to a law that is hindering rural communities from gaining access to health care?

Why do they fight to keep physicians from opening a new practice or partnering with another expert to provide care outside of a hospital setting? Why do they fight any proposals to allow practices outside of a hospital to purchase or own equipment without CON approval?

The answer is simple – the current laws protect their ability to expand their footprint, stifle competition and keep money in the pockets of the special interests that advocate on behalf of CON restrictions.

The push to protect the CON system is not patient-centered; it’s a power and money grab for some of the wealthiest companies in our state. Georgia’s CON laws restrict competition and, in turn, limit access to care for many rural communities.

House Bill 1339 addresses CON reforms, the Rural Hospital Tax Credit and the creation of the Comprehensive Health Coverage Commission. Among other things, the bill eases the regulations that control the construction and expansion of hospitals in counties with fewer than 50,000 people. HB 1339 passed the House with a vote of 166-1 and will be heard in the Senate Regulated Industries and Utilities Committee Monday morning.

We support the Senate’s efforts during this meeting to make changes to HB 1339. The Senate version will further clarify the creation of a CON exemption for perinatal services throughout the state and the development of hospitals in rural communities. The Senate version also adds two additional exemptions to current restrictions by enabling communities to reopen a previously closed hospital in rural communities and for those in South Fulton who wish to open a new facility to do so without CON restrictions.

We also endorse the Senate’s position to make the purchase of medical equipment exempt from CON for hospitals, providers and those in the medical field. This change is necessary because Georgia health systems are involved in innovative clinical trials and research that are saving lives. However, a lack of access to needed equipment in some regions of the state forces national partners in clinical trials look elsewhere to provide treatments. Georgia patients will either lose out on these chances or be forced to travel to other states, like Florida or Texas, rather than have access in their hometowns.

Many Georgians lack access to proper health care, and communities have no way of meeting the desperate need for increased access under current CON laws. The Senate changes to HB 1339 grew out of discussions with rural Georgians, individual hospitals and providers about the needs in their communities. This is a critical and meaningful piece of legislation moving in the right direction of removing CON barriers for good. We are committed to ensuring every Georgian, no matter their zip code, has proper access to quality health care.

Burt Jones is Georgia lieutenant governor. Dr. Petros G. Nikolinakos is an Athens oncologist.

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