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Open-heart program: Officials keeping hopes up

LAWRENCEVILLE - Despite a Certificate of Need Appeal Panel hearing officer's decision to nix Gwinnett Medical Center's open-heart surgery program, officials are hopeful the idea will become a reality soon.

Among other emotions, Dr. Manfred A. Sandler, GMC's chief of cardiology, said he is "shocked, surprised and dissatisfied," but not disheartened.

"This is like a boxing match," Sandler said. "Round 1 went to Gwinnett, Round 2 went to the hearing officer for Piedmont and Emory. Now we're in Round 3 and are hoping the process works the way it is supposed to."

"Round 3" is the 60-day period the Department of Community Health, which originally approved the program, has to review the hearing officer's decision.

"We are hopeful that DCH will continue to support bringing open-heart services to Gwinnett by reaffirming the original decision," GMC spokeswoman Andrea Wehrmann said. "They have supported this medical need from the beginning and have the final decision in the process."

Officials said that while testimony is closed in the hearing, attorneys will go through the 25-page ruling, line by line, and submit any objections to the DCH.

Gwinnett Medical Center applied for a Certificate of Need for the program in January 2008 and received approval from the DCH five months later. As part of the state's review process, area hospitals were given an opportunity to file opposition. Piedmont Hospital, Emory University Hospital and Emory Crawford Long Hospital did just that, appealing the DCH's ruling.

The hearing, including seven days of testimony, took place in February. The hearing officer's decision was made Tuesday and announced Wednesday by GMC's president and CEO, Phil Wolfe, at the Gwinnett County Chamber of Commerce's general membership luncheon meeting.

During that meeting, Wolfe said he was disappointed that Emory and Piedmont, "who do less than 25 percent of the total hearts that are done in Gwinnett County, would be able to stand in the way and either delay or even derail what we think is absolutely essential for us to have in Gwinnett County."

Medical center officials see this ruling simply as a roadblock to their ultimate goal.

"Our desire is stronger now than it was on Monday," Sandler said. "We are more aware that there's opposition, but that doesn't change our resolve at all."

Wehrmann said the appeal will be filed with the DCH in early June and a final decision should be made by July 17.

"We have to be prepared for blockades but are looking forward to bringing open-heart to Gwinnett," Adrienne Hollis, GMC's director of marketing and communications said.

Hollis said there would still be a possible remedy should the DCH side with the hearing officer.

"We would be able to move on to Superior Court if we wanted to continue to pursue approval," she said.