Heart program given new life
Certificate of Need reinstated for GMC surgery plan

LAWRENCEVILLE - An open-heart surgery program at Gwinnett Medical Center is a go.

The Certificate of Need for the open-heart program has been reinstated after the commissioner for the Georgia Department of Community Health reversed the decision of a hearing officer that halted plans to institute the program at GMC's Lawrenceville campus.

"We believe that the commissioner could have made no other decision given the overwhelming evidence of need for advanced cardiac services in Gwinnett County," said Phil Wolfe, GMC's president and CEO. "The original approval granted just over a year ago by the state was absolutely the correct decision."

Gwinnett Medical Center applied for a Certificate of Need for its open-heart program in January 2008 and received approval to move forward from Department of Community Health in June 2008. As part of the state's review process, other hospitals were given an opportunity to file opposition, with Piedmont Hospital, Emory University Hospital and Emory Crawford Long Hospital appealing the DCH's decision. In February, the parties presented their cases before the Certificate of Need Appeal Panel hearing officer, who then reversed the state's original decision.

"It was disheartening to have that decision appealed by hospitals outside of Gwinnett County," Wolfe said. "This good news has been a long time coming."

The commissioner's order, which was released Friday morning, reaffirms the DCH's original finding that traffic congestion and travel times from GMC to Atlanta-area hospitals - exceeding 59 minutes - pose problems for patients seeking open-heart surgery services.

"The roadways between GMC and Atlanta providers of open heart surgery are among the most congested in the Atlanta metropolitan area," the order reads. "The intensity of the traffic congestion in Gwinnett County as compared to other metro Atlanta counties and communities is supported by more than one report ... Traffic conditions are expected to worsen given the tremendous absolute population growth projected for Gwinnett County as opposed to other metropolitan Atlanta areas."

"The decision to me was obvious," said state Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville. "People will not have to go a long distance for heart surgery. They can have it done locally."

The commissioner's order also stated that existing providers of open-heart services, including St. Joseph's Hospital of Atlanta, Northeast Georgia Medical Center, Atlanta Medical Center, Kennestone, Emory University Hospital, Emory Crawford Long and Piedmont Hospital, are not alternatives to GMC's proposed project.

Although the commissioner's decision gives the green-light for GMC to move forward with its program, further appeals are possible, with parties allowed to seek court review within 30 days.

Emory Healthcare and Piedmont Hospital released statements Friday regarding the commissioner's decision, with Emory calling it "unfortunate." Neither statement indicated whether the health care providers intends to file an appeal.

"Gwinnett has actively supported this project from the beginning and was understandably alarmed in the wake of the hearing officer's interim decision that went against GMC," Wolfe said. "I would hope, as would the people of our community, that further efforts to block this critical service from being offered here are avoided."