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GMC: Appeals won't delay heart program

LAWRENCEVILLE - Appeals filed this week by three area hospitals in opposition to the state's approval of Gwinnett Medical Center's $33 million open heart program won't immediately delay the hospital's planning process, a GMC official said Friday.

But should the appeals process go beyond 2008, GMC may have to alter its heart program timeline, said Mark Mullin, GMC's planning director.

Piedmont Hospital, Emory University Hospital and Emory Crawford Long Hospital - all Atlanta-based - filed appeals last week with the Georgia Department of Community Health requesting the state agency to reverse its June 5 decision to greenlight GMC's open heart bid.

Though the filings angered GMC president and CEO Phil Wolfe, Mullin said he expects a favorable appeals decision to be made between Halloween and Thanksgiving, an ideal timeline given that the hospital will still be in the design phase of a three-story expansion that will house the open heart practice.

In the event the state again rules in GMC's favor, and Piedmont Hospital and Emory Healthcare decide to appeal the decision a second time - sending the issue into 2009 - GMC may have to delay the start of construction - scheduled to begin in July 2009 - until a decision is made. The program is scheduled to be online in late 2010.

"There are things next year that we would have to see where we are," Mullin said. "We would have to make some decisions and cautiously move forward."

A message seeking comment was not immediately returned by the GDCH on Friday.

New rules governing the GDCH's Certificate of Need appeals process went into effect July 1.

Cases are heard by a five-member panel - which includes a hearing officer - 60 to 120 days after an appeal is filed. Mullin said it's similar to a court trial, with each side presenting witnesses, evidence and testimony over a five-day period. If the panel rules against the appeal, the entity that filed it has the right to an additional appeal hearing in an area superior court. That's a risky bet, Mullin said, because at that point, the party could be liable for the legal bills of its opposition.

Mullin said GMC is confident the GDCH will uphold its original ruling.

"We've made a great case," he said.