FORT OGLETHORPE, Ga. — Wednesday storms didn't stop roughly 150 people from rallying to protest the potential for a Chattanooga-based competitor to appeal state approval for CHI Memorial Georgia's new hospital in Catoosa County.
Andrew McGill, CHI Memorial's chief strategist, said in a phone interview Wednesday that he's unsure if Parkridge Health Systems officials, who opposed the new hospital during the application process, plan to file an appeal before the May 31 deadline.
Georgia law requires health care providers to obtain a certificate of need before offering certain services by proving that those services are needed in a given area. Many states have certificate-of-need laws based on the rationale that creating unnecessary services will further drive up the cost of health care.
Last month, the Georgia Department of Community Health cleared CHI Memorial to build a new hospital in Catoosa County by approving a certificate of need for a 64-bed hospital with a more than $100 million price tag on Battlefield Parkway.
Even if an appeal is unsuccessful, the legal process could delay construction of a new hospital for several years.
David Foster, a LaFayette, Georgia, resident who attended the rally, said he served the community for 26 years as a firefighter paramedic before working as regulator over that field for another 20 years. He said his wife works for CHI Memorial, and he's "definitely a stakeholder."
Through his health care career, Foster became familiar with the certificate-of-need process and said he's seen roughly 30 hospitals encounter issues when they tried to expand services.
"None of them were ever denied — they were always contested," Foster said, calling appeals a delaying tactic and noting that CHI Memorial's new hospital would actually be smaller than the current hospital.
Foster recalled that a groundbreaking for Cherokee Northside in Canton, Georgia, was put on hold for five years due to certificate-of-need appeals.
Parkridge officials said in a previous statement, "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."
In their initial opposition statement to the Catoosa County location, Parkridge officials said the proposed relocation from Fort Oglethorpe will duplicate services in a region that is already well served while reducing access to care for patients to the west of Fort Oglethorpe.
Certificate-of-need turf wars are common in more affluent areas where the population is growing and there's a higher proportion of residents with commercial insurance because health care systems stand to make the most money off those patients.
The median household income in Catoosa County is $58,932, compared to $46,601 and $40,384, respectively, in Walker and Dade counties.
In addition to being a hub for local commerce that's closer to Interstate 75 and downtown Ringgold — Catoosa County's seat — those deeper local pockets help explain why numerous medical offices and health care businesses have cropped up along Battlefield Parkway in recent years.
Parkridge operates two hospitals in neighboring Hamilton County — Parkridge Medical Center, which according to Google Maps is 11 miles from Memorial's new hospital location, and Parkridge East, which is 6.5 miles from the new site.
Parkridge East also recently received approval in Tennessee to construct a freestanding emergency department near Camp Jordan in East Ridge, 6 miles from the Battlefield Parkway site.
The new hospital on Battlefield Parkway would replace CHI Memorial's aging facility in Fort Oglethorpe, which is slated to close and be donated to local government once the new hospital opens.
Another rally participant, Susan Gibson, said she attended because she thinks Catoosa County is a great community that needs a better hospital.
Chattanooga's other major hospitals could have proposed the new facility, "but Memorial is the one that stepped up to the plate," said Gibson, of Ringgold.
Parkridge swooping in to stop the new hospital, might "burn some bridges" and keep some Northwest Georgia residents from using their services altogether, she said.
"That bad taste in their mouths has been set," Gibson said.
Fort Oglethorpe resident Ashley Ortwein said her father worked at the hospital called Hutcheson Medical Center under a previous owner and she said she's seen a lot of good come from CHI Memorial since its takeover of the facility.
"I just actually today got established with a primary care physician down on the parkway (Battlefield) with CHI, and I'm very impressed at the way they managed things," she said. "And I feel like our community needs and deserves a facility on the parkway."
Wednesday's rally was promoted on social media by Catoosa County. Shannon Whitfield, chairman of the Walker County Board of Commissioners, spoke against Parkridge at the event.
Parkridge is not the first Chattanooga health system to challenge CHI Memorial's efforts to obtain a certificate of need for services along the parkway.
In December 2017, shortly after Memorial took over the North Georgia facilities, Erlanger Health System officials said Memorial shouldn't be allowed to reopen an outpatient surgery and radiation center on Battlefield Parkway, arguing that the center's certificate of need lapsed under the previous owner.
Erlanger officials then filed a certificate of need to build their own surgery and radiation center across the street next to the Erlanger South Family Medicine building. But state regulators ultimately approved Memorial's projects and denied Erlanger's after local hospital and political leaders, Georgia state Sen. Jeff Mullis from Chickamauga, rallied residents against Erlanger — similar to the current attempts to convince Parkridge to stand down.
Unlike Erlanger, Parkridge has no facilities in North Georgia and has no plans to expand south aside from starting construction on the East Ridge emergency department.
In the earlier statement, Parkridge officials said the system "has served the residents of Southeastern Chattanooga and North Georgia, including Catoosa County, for decades and is committed to providing high-quality health care."
A speaker at the rally asked the crowd to cheer when he named their home county; about half cheered for Walker, the other half for Catoosa, and there were a few who indicated they were from Dade County.