Our view

The long saga of Fort Mill’s hospital

July 4, 2014 

Rendering of a Fort Mill hospital plan submitted by Carolinas HealthCare System.

PROVIDED — Provided

We share the Fort Mill Town Council’s frustration with the ridiculously long process for getting a hospital built in northern York County.

For nearly 10 years, Rock Hill’s Piedmont Medical Center has battled with one or more Charlotte hospitals to win state approval for building a facility in the Fort Mill area.

Piedmont and Carolinas Medical Center have both won – and lost – the state’s blessings to construct the hospital. PMC was selected in 2006 by the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, but an administrative law judge ordered DHEC to reconsider.

In 2011, the agency picked CMC, but Administrative Law Judge Phillip Lenski overturned that decision in April of this year, giving Piedmont the go-ahead to build the hospital. Weeks later, Lenski set aside that decision, apparently to give the issue more thought.

So, after nine years of fighting, lobbying and escalating legal costs, nobody can build the hospital. And a final resolution could still be months or years away.

Meanwhile, Fort Mill continues to grow. A decade on, more area patients are driving to PMC on South Herlong Avenue in Rock Hill or CMC’s nearest hospital in Pineville.

Blame South Carolina’s current Certificate of Need process. The program is intended to save costs by preventing duplication of medical facilities in a community. Any company wanting to build a hospital or purchase expensive medical equipment must receive a Certificate of Need from DHEC before proceeding.

Holding down costs is a good goal, but that has not happened with the Fort Mill hospital. The process for reviewing certificate applications clearly takes too long. And, as we have seen, the appeals can go on and on.

On June 23, a frustrated Fort Mill Town Council called on state lawmakers to halt the Certificate of Need program for one year. Council members hope that might give one or more companies enough time to begin constructing a hospital.

The council’s resolution says more than 12,000 people live in Fort Mill and more than 60,000 in northern York County. The 20-minute commute to existing hospitals “can be the difference between life and death,” according to the resolution.

Gov. Nikki Haley tried to get rid of the Certificate of Need program last year when she vetoed funding for it in DHEC’s 2013-2014 budget. Haley said the free market – not politics – should drive health care decisions.

Legislators upheld the veto, but the state Supreme Court ruled this year that DHEC must run the Certificate of Need program even without the targeted money. To eliminate the program, the court ruled, the Legislature must specifically vote to kill it.

We don’t fault the efforts of Haley or the Fort Mill Town Council. The program needs to be changed.

But a veto of funding clearly isn’t the way to do it. Nor is a one-year suspension. It’s doubtful any company would risk spending the money to build a Fort Mill hospital if officials knew the Certificate of Need program would return in just a year.

Last-minute or temporary solutions aren’t the wisest strategies. South Carolina needs to conduct a thorough, professional review of the Certificate of Need program to determine whether it should be eliminated or whether a more streamlined, more effective process can be developed. State leaders need to launch such an effort soon.

For now, the Fort Mill Town Council and others continue to wait for a hospital. Piedmont officials have said that the earliest their facility could open is 2018 – 13 years after the need was identified.

That’s ridiculous – and potentially deadly.

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