Fort Mill council tries to spur hospital construction

Fort Mill leaders want lawmakers to suspend the state regulatory process that has held up construction of a hospital in the town for almost a decade.

The Town Council unanimously approved a resolution Monday asking lawmakers to halt the Certificate of Need program – the mechanism the state Department of Health and Environmental Control uses to determine who gets to build health care facilities and where – for one year.

Piedmont Medical Center in Rock Hill and Carolinas HealthCare System in Charlotte are the last two contenders for the state permit. DHEC has awarded each a certificate of need over the past three years, only to have both permits rescinded, either by court or departmental action.

Gov. Nikki Haley last year tried to kill the certificate of need system by vetoing money the Legislature budgeted to run it, but the state Supreme Court ruled the program must be paid for unless lawmakers eliminate it by changing state law. Haley wants the free market to determine who can build health care facilities.

The council’s resolution states that more than 12,000 people in Fort Mill and more than 60,000 in northern York County have been waiting a decade for a new hospital, commuting 20 minutes or more for service, which “can be the difference between life and death.”

The legal battle over who can build the new hospital, the resolution reads, has created a “state of frustration and confusion” for residents. The resolution cites “about $100 million” in several dozen projects statewide thrown into uncertainty when Haley vetoed funding for the DHEC program.

The town council sent its resolution to the local legislative delegation and both hospital contenders. The council didn’t identify a preference for which company should build the hospital.

Councilman Nathan Blythe questioned whether a year’s suspension of the DHEC program would be long enough to give either company the confidence to go ahead and build a hospital. When Piedmont Medical Center was given the go-ahead to build in April, company leaders indicated a hospital wouldn’t open until 2018.

Most council members agreed that a year would be long enough for a company to start construction, and re-instituting the program wouldn’t shut down an ongoing project.

“I would assume once they get it under construction, they’d be OK,” Town Manager Dennis Pieper said.

Piedmont Medical Center officials haven’t seen the town council’s resolution, spokeswoman Amy Faulkenberry said, but they are hopeful DHEC’s April decision – later reversed by an administrative law judge – allowing it to build would be re-instated. She couldn’t say whether Piedmont would look to build in the year window if lawmakers were to suspend the program.

“Piedmont Medical Center remains committed to ... serving the health care needs of the Fort Mill community,” she said. “However, we respect the judicial process.”

Carolinas HealthCare spokesman Phil Whitesell said his company couldn’t comment while the administrative law court case is ongoing.