Judge blocks Fort Mill hospital

dworthington@heraldonline.comMay 20, 2014 

An S.C. Administrative Law Court judge has vacated his order giving Piedmont Medical Center permission to build a new Fort Mill hospital.

On March 31, Judge Phillip Lenski gave PMC the required certificate of need, ruling that if Carolinas HealthCare built a Fort Mill hospital it would adversely affect the Rock Hill hospital and other independent physicians in York County financially and affect the quality of medical care offered.

Carolinas HealthCare asked Lenski to reconsider his decision.

Earlier this month, Lenski vacated his order giving PMC permission to build, pending a decision on Carolinas HealthCare’s request.

Vacating his order means it no longer exists, said Debra Gammons, a professor at the Charleston School Law, and Rock Hill lawyer Dan Ballou.

Gammons said vacating the order was an unusual step and that neither Carolinas HealthCare nor PMC has the state’s approval to build a Fort Mill hospital.

It is unclear how Lenski’s decision affects when he must respond to Carolinas HealthCare and PMC. Generally, Administrative Law Court rules require a response within 30 days of filing a request. Because Lenski vacated his order, the 30-day rule may not apply.

PMC spokesperson Amy Faulkenberry declined to comment on the attorneys’ interpretation of Lenski’s order. She said PMC will “not be taking any further action” on the Fort Mill hospital “until we find out what the final order is, out of respect for the judicial process.”

PMC officials had started updating their plans for a 100-bed hospital at the intersection of S.C. 160 and U.S. 21 Business after Lenski awarded them the needed certificate of need.

In a statement Tuesday, PMC said, “We remain confident in the case we presented at trial, and we are hopeful that the final order will be consistent with the order that the court issued on March 31, which awarded the CON (certificate of need) to Piedmont Medical Center.”

Carolinas HealthCare officials declined to comment on the judge’s decision.

Lenski’s decision is the latest step in a nearly 10-year battle over who gets to build the Fort Mill hospital. In 2005, the state Department of Health and Environmental Control awarded a certificate of need to PMC. That decision was appealed, and the process was sent back DHEC.

In 2011, DEHC awarded the certificate of need to Carolinas HealthCare, which argued it was already the hospital of choice for residents of northern York County. Carolinas HealthCare officials said more than 50 percent of York County patients were already being served by CHC hospitals.

That decision was appealed. After hearing arguments from PMC and Carolinas HealthCare, Lenski awarded the certificate of need to PMC.

In its motion to reconsider after the March 31 decision, Carolinas HealthCare said that the Administrative Law Court “unconstitutionally engaged in economic protectionism,” that the court’s opinion relied on testimony that does not exist, that the court misapplied the current S.C. Health Plan and that it relied too closely on witnesses affiliated with PMC.

Each hospital system filed responses with the court after Carolinas HealthCare’s initial motion to reconsider.

In an April 24 filing, Carolinas HealthCare argued that PMC’s proposed Fort Mill hospital was a “duplicative, expensive project … exactly the type of hospital project that CON Act seeks to avoid, particularly when Piedmont is having difficulty keeping its existing hospital full. In the order, the court has bought into Piedmont’s argument hook-line-and-sinker, while ignoring the ample evidence that Piedmont’s brand-new $120 million hospital is likely to sit empty once built.”

Securing the Fort Mill certificate of need is part of three-pronged strategy to keep the hospital competitive, PMC officials have said.

The first is the ongoing, $20 million expansion of the emergency room at the Rock Hill hospital. Second is increasing its number of primary care practices in York County from eight to 20 and possibly more, officials said.

Don Worthington •  803-329-4066

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