Old fight flares as work begins on new hospital in Georgia

Leaders of a southwest Georgia county say the region’s largest hospital system has tried to obstruct plans for a new competitor hospital in their county, but Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany denies doing anything wrong.

Lee County leaders have long sought to build a new hospital in their county just north of Albany. They got a boost in 2015 when Phoebe Putney entered into a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission after buying former crosstown competitor Palmyra Park Hospital. The federal regulator had sued Phoebe Putney because it said the purchase of Palmyra illegally reduced hospital competition.

Under the terms of the deal, Phoebe Putney agreed to not object to anyone seeking permission from the state of Georgia to build a new hospital in six counties in and around Albany, including Lee County, for five years. Leaders in Lee County obtained a certificate of need to build a $124 million new hospital in 2017.

The hospital, though, remains unbuilt. In 2019, Lee County won an extension, giving it until Aug. 6, 2021 to finish construction. In May, Lee County filed for a second extension, saying the COVID-19 pandemic had affected its ability to pursue its plans. Mathis said the county is still trying to negotiate a contract for someone to operate the hospital, which a county entity is supposed to borrow $80 million or more to help finance.

Days later, though, Phoebe Putney filed an objection, saying Lee County didn’t have legal authority for the extension. Lee County Commission Chairman Billy Mathis told WALB-TV that he was unhappy that Phoebe was trying to obstruct the hospital.

“Obviously, they’re back to their old ways and we’re very disappointed in Phoebe,” said Mathis.

But Phoebe Putney CEO Scott Steiner said the five-year restraint the health system signed expired in March.

“We’re not under any FTC obligations to not object,” Steiner said. “We believe state law does not allow for that second extension. Hold them accountable, they’ve had that CON (certificate of need) for more than two years.”

Lee County responded by dropping the request and saying it had met its June 21 deadline to start work.

The hospital sent in a progress report that included completed and approved building plans, a $48.6 million construction contract and a picture showing earth movers and drainage pipes at the site of a former golf course just inside Lee County, saying work began June 15. The contract specifies a completion date of Aug. 6, 2021, the deadline the certificate sets for the hospital’s completion. However, in the email withdrawing its request, Lee County said it might still ask for an extension of the completion date.