CHI Memorial officials said they're confident state regulators will approve their plan to build a new hospital in Catoosa County, Georgia, despite a nearby Tennessee hospital's efforts to stop the project.
"We are simply relocating existing services - not adding anything we are not already authorized to offer - and actually decreasing the number of licensed hospital beds," Andrew McGill, CHI Memorial's chief strategist, said in an email Friday.
Officials from Chattanooga-based Parkridge Health System are contesting Memorial's plans to build a replacement hospital estimated to cost more than $100 million at 4710 Battlefield Parkway - just shy of 6 miles from the health system's current hospital in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia.
Memorial also has two hospitals in Hamilton County, Tennessee, including its main hospital near downtown Chattanooga.
McGill said in the email he was surprised a Tennessee hospital "with zero presence in the state of Georgia" is against the replacement hospital.
"Why this sudden interest in their health and well-being beyond offering services that require them to travel out of state? No Georgia-based health care provider opposed the project," he said.
Because Memorial's new hospital would be more than 5 miles away, Memorial needed to apply for a new certificate of need, which requires that health care providers justify the need for services before undergoing major projects. Memorial filed a certificate of need application for the new hospital with the Georgia Department of Community Health in December.
In an opposition letter to the department dated March 30, Parkridge argued the proposed hospital is too close to Parkridge facilities just over the state line in Tennessee.
Memorial's new location would be 11 miles from Parkridge Medical Center, 6.5 miles from Parkridge East Hospital and 6 miles from a new, freestanding emergency department that Parkridge plans to build near Camp Jordan in East Ridge, Tennessee.
The opposition letter also states that there's no need to replace Memorial's current Georgia hospital and that the motivation to move is driven by the desire to attract more affluent patients from Ringgold, Georgia.
"Photos from CHI Georgia's website show a pleasant and usable hospital facility. It is clear that CHI has invested in this facility and now wants to simply vacate it for a more favorable location with a better payor mix while abandoning its historical service area," Parkridge's letter states, noting that many of Memorial's current Georgia patients reside farther west of the new location in Walker County.
It is clear that the hospital's proposed location to the east on Battlefield Parkway near Ringgold and Interstate 75 has become a popular hub for health care services and development in recent years, attracting numerous new physicians' offices and outpatient facilities.
But it's also clear that North Georgians overwhelmingly support CHI Memorial's plans to build a new hospital there.
CHI Memorial has obtained buy-in from local authorities through issuing revenue bonds of up to $40 million, McGill said in February, which greatly improves the likelihood of receiving approval for a certificate of need.
"There is no precedent for a replacement hospital project with financial backing from a local county ever being denied in the state of Georgia," McGill said in the Friday email.
Memorial launched an online petition that had more than 2,500 supporters for the project as of Thursday, in addition to hundreds more on social media, according to a hospital spokesperson.
A letter signed by each member of the Walker County Board of Commissioners was sent Thursday to the Georgia officials tasked with granting certificates of need urging them to approve the replacement hospital.
"Walker County strongly disagrees with Parkridge's allegation that CHI Georgia 'is abandoning its existing patient base,'" the letter states. "Our local hospital building is too old and faced too many years of disrepair prior to being acquired by CHI Georgia. ... This much-needed, state-of-the-art hospital will consolidate physician and hospital services on an easy-to-navigate medical campus. The replacement hospital will attract needed primary care and specialists to Northwest Georgia."
The representatives from LaFayette, Georgia, wrote their own letter to state officials saying, "Parkridge does not speak for us ... The status quo of roof leaks, bursting pipes and other maintenance challenges with an aged, neglected building is not acceptable. It deters both patients and physicians from using the facility. We truly deserve better."
Another letter from Catoosa County community leader Doris White states, "We need a new, modern hospital nearby to meet our medical needs. Many residents are faced with serious health issues, restricting their ability to drive."
Friday was the last day to submit letters of support before Georgia regulators decide the project's fate on April 29.
If a certificate of need is granted to Memorial, Parkridge can appeal the state's decision, which means groundbreaking for the new hospital will be delayed in a legal process that could take between several months and multiple years.
Parkridge officials did not provide letters or respond to questions asking if community members supported their attempt to stop Memorial's new hospital and instead offered the following copy of a previous statement:
"The proposed relocation will duplicate services in a region that is already well-served while reducing access to care for the patient base historically served by CHI Memorial Hospital Georgia, particularly Walker County residents," the statement said. "We have never been opposed to CHI Memorial Hospital Georgia's current location in Fort Oglethorpe, including building a replacement hospital on the current site to serve residents of Walker and Dade counties. Parkridge Health supports equitable and sustainable access to health care; however, we do not feel CHI Memorial Hospital Georgia's relocation supports that position."