Updated at 7:06 p.m. on Tuesday, June 26, 2018.
Officials from CHI Memorial Hospital Georgia say Erlanger Health System is the only obstacle to Memorial providing full-service cancer treatment in North Georgia starting in September.
On Monday, state regulators approved Memorial's certificate of need, or CON, application to replace outdated radiation equipment at its facility — CHI Memorial Parkway — on Battlefield Parkway in Ringgold. Meanwhile, Erlanger's application for a new, competing cancer center across the street was denied.
But if Erlanger appeals the state's decision, local access to cancer therapy will be delayed in a legal process that could take between several months and two years, and hundreds of people will be denied life-saving care close to home, Memorial CEO Larry Schumacher said.
"We are excited to bring our expertise and capabilities to the North Georgia region," Schumacher said at a news conference on Tuesday. "We need Erlanger to respect the decision of the state of Georgia to ensure there's no further delay."
He urged people to sign an online petition against Erlanger: "We want the residents of North Georgia, a community that needs cancer care now, to go online to CHIMemorialNOW.org ... share your comments on how delays in care will affect you and your families."
Erlanger officials did not specifically address Memorial's comments, but Tanner Goodrich, vice president of operations for Erlanger, said he was notified about the denied application at 5 p.m. on Monday and that Erlanger respects the decision.
"Our team is evaluating the various options relative to next steps in the [certificate of need] process. Regardless, Erlanger will continue to focus on enabling greater access to high quality health care in North Georgia," Goodrich said in an email.
The dispute over who will provide health care services in North Georgia began in November, when Memorial purchased the Parkway facility for $4.5 million from its former owner, Hutcheson Medical Center.
Memorial officials hoped to revive surgery and cancer services that lapsed during Hutcheson's troubles. But Erlanger argued the facility's certificate of need, a regulatory process wherein organizations must demonstrate a need for medical services, also had lapsed, and filed a certificate of need for its own surgery center in Ringgold.
On Feb. 26, 2018, the same day Memorial argued in an Atlanta courtroom that North Georgia would suffer if Erlanger's project moved forward, the two hospital systems each submitted CON applications to provide radiation services for cancer patients in the area.
In March, the state denied Erlanger's surgery center application, which Erlanger is in the process of appealing. The Georgia Department of Community Health website now lists that hearing date as "pending."
Although Memorial officials knew these services were needed in the region, they didn't anticipate having to "compete" with Erlanger to provide them, Schumacher told the Times Free Press.
"Erlanger had its opportunity to invest in radiation oncology services over the three years it managed Hutcheson Medical Center, yet failed to do so," Schumacher said in a news release. "It also owned the land for its proposed cancer center for 10 years, but again failed to take steps to create a cancer center."
Steven Henry, chairman of the Catoosa County Board of Commissioners, and Georgia Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, were two local leaders who expressed their support Tuesday for Memorial's project.
"We're hoping that our friendly opposition across the line stands down and [does] not oppose the CON, because it's so important to this community," Mullis said. "This is important for us medically, economically and socially."
In a separate CON battle, Erlanger and Tennova Healthcare will meet in Nashville on Wednesday for a hearing to determine who can build an emergency center in Bradley County, Tennessee.
Contact staff writer Elizabeth Fite at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6673.