NASHVILLE -- A state board approved a certificate for Dr. Deanna Duncan to open an additional hospice in the Chattanooga area during its monthly meeting Wednesday.
The Health Services and Development Agency board voted seven to three in favor of allowing Duncan to open Hearth LLC on Rossville Avenue. The nonresidential hospice would serve nine Tennessee counties and is projecting to serve 76 patients the first year and 212 patients the second.
Duncan, who had previously worked at Hospice of Chattanooga, said she believes a small hospice provider who knows the work as well as she does can provide more personalized care.
"This is personal," Duncan told the board during the two-hour hearing before her certificate was approved. "This is my life's work, and I'm committed to providing highly personalized, committed hospice care."
Local hospices, including nonprofit Hospice of Chattanooga, had opposed Duncan's application, arguing that the Chattanooga area already had sufficient hospice care.
Hospices provide end-of-life care outside a hospital, often for terminal cancer patients. A doctor must state that a person only has about six months to live for Medicare to pay for hospice care.
Both supporters and those who opposed the new hospice spoke at the hearing.
Opponents argued that they had never turned down hospice patients and had adequate staff to cover any needs in the area.
Those supporting Duncan said they knew patients who were not able to immediately get the hospice care they needed.
Exactly how much hospice care is needed in an area can be difficult to assess, some experts say, especially since both hospice providers and demand for their services have seen a dramatic growth in the last decade. Not only is the nation's population aging, but more people now seek hospice care.
Board members, who spent about an hour questioning both sides on details of the services in the area, said the decision was one of the most difficult they have had to make recently.
In the end, most of them said they supported the hospice, partially because Duncan had such strong support from the community.
More than 150 letters were written in support of her certificate.
After the hearing, Garry Mac, spokesman for Hospice of Chattanooga, said they still do not think the area needs another hospice, especially additional for-profit groups.
Duncan said she was ready to put differences behind her and work with other hospice providers.
"We need to work together to raise the minimum standard of care, to improve care for the patients," she said.
The hospice can start operating immediately but will take a limited number of patients until it is approved for Medicare payments, Duncan said.