Northwest Georgians organize to advocate for new hospital

Residents of Northwest Georgia are starting a nonprofit organization to advocate for a new hospital in their community.

The move follows a rally that drew about 150 people last month to protest potential efforts by Chattanooga-based Parkridge Health System to stop CHI Memorial from building a new facility in Ringgold.

That rally failed to sway Parkridge, which decided to move forward with its efforts, but the residents plan to continue making their opinions known.

"There's a lot of support in Northwest Georgia to stand up to say that we want a replacement hospital, that we desire it," Jonathan Connell, a concerned resident, said. "And we're still asking Parkridge to stand down. We have a lot of hope that when Parkridge sees the community outreach, they'll agree that we need a hospital."

Named the Northwest Georgia Hospital Coalition, the nonprofit organization will be incorporated by the middle of this week, Connell said in a phone interview. The group has had a weekly meeting since the rally but wants to incorporate to make sure it has a consistent message and that members have legal cover if they're targeted for their advocacy.

Organizing and education will be the focus of their work, Connell said. There's no contact information for community members interested in participating, but he said those details will be released soon.

(READ MORE: 'Stand Down Parkridge' rally aims to quell opposition to new Catoosa County hospital)

A week after last month's rally near the current CHI Memorial hospital in Fort Oglethorpe, Parkridge announced its appeal of the state of Georgia's approval of the new hospital planned for Battlefield Parkway in Ringgold. CHI Memorial plans to close the hospital in Fort Oglethorpe and move its services to the new hospital.

To avoid duplication of services, Georgia requires that new hospitals receive state approval from the Georgia Office of Health Planning through a document called a certificate of need.

Parkridge East Hospital, in East Ridge, Tennessee, is 6.5 miles away from CHI Memorial Georgia's proposed new location, making it the closest competing hospital.

In a letter submitted to the Georgia Office of Health Planning, attorneys representing Parkridge said they're appealing the certificate of need on the basis that "Parkridge offers substantially similar services as proposed within a 35-mile radius of (Memorial's) project and has a service area that overlaps the CHI Georgia's proposed service area."

When asked for a comment, Michelle Hindmon, a communication marketing specialist for Parkridge, wrote in an email that Parkridge has been proud to support and care for Georgians for 50 years and that "CHI Memorial's proposed new hospital duplicates services in a region that is already well-served and reduces access to care for the patient base historically served by CHI Memorial Hospital Georgia."

Certificate-of-need challenges are a normal part of how hospitals grow, Hindmon said in a phone interview, pointing to an appeal by CHI Memorial to a proposal by Parkridge to open a freestanding emergency department in East Ridge. That case is set to be heard by a judge in February of next year.

In an interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press when the Parkridge challenge was announced, Andrew McGill, CHI Memorial's chief strategist, said a hearing on the $100 million smart hospital planned for Northwest Georgia will most likely take place in late summer or early fall, pushing back the soonest possible groundbreaking for the hospital to early 2023, he said.

(READ MORE: New CHI Memorial Georgia hospital on hold as Parkridge appeals state approval)

Connell said the new nonprofit organization is developing an online petition along with a digital media product and a website, but at this point, Connell said the best thing people can do is call Parkridge to express their opinion. More public forums are also being planned, he said.

Concerned residents have already committed $50,000 to the campaign, which he said the group has hired someone to direct. The organization is committed to having a new hospital, and he said they're in it for the long haul.

"We believe that once the community is educated about the reality of the appeal process, there is going to be complete and utter outrage," Connell said.

Parkridge has many employees in Northwest Georgia, Connell said, and he thinks Parkridge will still be the "premier" birthing choice for the community - but medical services like an emergency room and indigent care need to be accessed closer to home.

He said he would "love" for someone from Parkridge to reach out to him, but that hasn't happened yet. He said he would like someone to explain to him the reasoning behind the appeal. Connell said he wants the campaign to be "cordial," but he said he thinks in the end Parkridge will do the right thing and end its appeal.

Staff writer Elizabeth Fite contributed to this story.

Contact Andrew Wilkins at awilkins@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @tweetatwilkins.