ATLANTA - The Senate gave the green light Wednesday for Cancer Treatment Centers of America to build a specialty hospital south of Atlanta primarily for paying patients from outside of Georgia.
The for-profit company has four hospitals across the country that offer a holistic approach to treating cancer patients, including not only the latest technology but spiritual guidance, said Senate Majority Leader Tommie Williams, the legislation's chief sponsor.
"All their patients say, 'This is a very unique experience. It's the first time I've been treated like somebody,'" said Williams, R-Lyons.
Williams' bill, which passed 31-23, would create a new category of "destination cancer hospitals" under state law, limited to 50 beds or fewer and required to have at least 65 percent of their patients from outside of Georgia.
He said the new category would be necessary for CTCA to seek a Certificate of Need from the state to build on land near Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
But the project's opponents say that new category is nothing more than an exemption that would give CTCA special treatment.
"All hospitals live by (the CON law)," said Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville, who voted against Williams' bill. "This gives a specific exemption to one hospital."
The CTCA legislation was introduced last year and quickly became caught up in a larger debate over whether to overhaul Georgia's 28-year-old CON process.
The bill went up in smoke along with other proposed CON reforms when comprehensive reform legislation being pushed by Gov. Sonny Perdue failed to reach the House floor.
Two powerful organizations, the Georgia Hospital Association and the state Chamber of Commerce, are fighting this year's CTCA measure.
That helped account for the large number of "no" votes in the Senate on Wednesday and threatens the bill's prospects as it moves to the House.
During Wednesday's debate, Williams charged that the opposition to CTCA's plans is being led by Georgia hospital CEOs making average salaries of $750,000 who want to protect their monopoly over health care.
"They will always be able to afford the very best care," he said. "They can jump on their corporate jets."
But CTCA's opponents argue that an elitist element is present in its hospitals, marketed mostly to cancer patients who can afford to fly to an out-of-state specialty center when they've been told by doctors in their home communities that their illnesses can't be cured.
Under Williams' bill, destination cancer hospitals would only be required to dedicate 3 percent of their revenue to indigent care.
Still, senators supporting the legislation said cancer patients should have every treatment opportunity that can be made available to them.
"We have good hospitals. We have good physicians," said Sen. Don Thomas, R-Dalton, the only medical doctor in the Senate. "(But) when somebody gets cancer, they should have the right to choose whatever treatment they want."