House panel takes up holistic cancer center bill

ATLANTA - Two cancer survivors who have been treated at an out-of-state facility that emphasizes a holistic approach urged lawmakers Tuesday to approve legislation to help the company come to Georgia.

But oncologists representing several Georgia cancer centers told a House committee their facilities offer care that's as good or better than Cancer Treatment Centers of America and objected to a bill they said would give the Illinois-based firm special treatment.

As introduced two weeks ago, the legislation would allow the company to open a small hospital near Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport dedicated to cancer patients without complying with Georgia's Certificate of Need law.

The 28-year-old statute requires hospitals and other health care facilities to demonstrate a need for the services they plan to offer before they're allowed to open for business.

But on Tuesday, the measure's sponsor, Rep. Ron Stephens, R-Garden City, presented a new version of the measure. Instead of exempting the planned cancer center from the CON law, the substitute bill would create a new category of medical facilities within the law for "destination acute-care hospitals'' like the proposed center.

Stephens said such hospitals would be limited to no more than 50 beds and would specialize in cancer treatment. Also, at least 65 percent of the patients would have to be from out of state, he said.

Stephens said such requirements should resolve concerns by Georgia hospital officials that the center would siphon off their paying patients.

Stephens, chairman of the House Economic Development and Tourism Committee, also touted the project's financial benefits to the state, including a projected economic impact of more than $415 million in its first five years.

He said the company isn't asking for tax abatements or financial incentives, so the project wouldn't cost the state any money.

"They only want to use our major hub in Atlanta to bring their patients to Georgia,'' Stephens told members of a special committee formed by Speaker Glenn Richardson, R-Hiram, to consider a series of bills introduced this year changing the CON law.

A radiologist from Valdosta with prostate cancer and a Douglasville woman with breast cancer testified about misdiagnoses and other forms of inadequate care they received in Georgia before traveling to a facility operated by Cancer Treatment Centers of America.

There, they said they received a fully integrated form of care, including nutritional services and spiritual counseling, that gave them hope when doctors here told them there was none.

"I still have incurable cancer,'' said Tina Prestridge. "But I have my life back.''

"Get cancer and go there and experience it,'' Dr. Richard Cooper told committee members. "You'll see the difference.''

But Dr. David Lawson, an oncologist at Emory University's Winship Cancer Institute, said Emory also features an integrated approach to caring for cancer patients.

Unlike Cancer Treatment Centers of America, however, Emory also emphasizes clinical trials in its research efforts, he said.

"Clinical trials are fundamental elements in the relationship between cancer patients and their doctors ... the only hope we have to improve cancer treatment,'' he said.

Lawson and representatives of cancer centers at Atlanta's Piedmont Hospital and DeKalb Medical Center also argued that the state shouldn't pass a law either exempting one company from the CON law or creating a new category just for them.

But Rep. Austin Scott, R-Tifton, a member of the committee who supports loosening the law's restrictions, suggested that Georgia's cancer centers simply don't want the competition the out-of-state company would provide.

"Why shouldn't the patient have a choice?'' he asked Lawson. "Why are you so scared of them?''

"It's not about fear or market share,'' Lawson responded. "I think it's about a level playing field.''