To provide high-quality health care services for all Georgia citizens, health care providers must consider their profit margins. As the saying goes, with no margin, there is no mission. At the same time, it’s impossible to provide for everyone’s health care needs if profit is the sole consideration.
The healthcare industry’s unique role in our communities requires the unique approach provided by our Certificate of Need (CON) law. The CON program is a health planning process that protects Georgians by helping lower cost, improve quality and ensure access. It also provides some protections to nonprofit hospitals, such as WellStar, from market distortions.
Right now, Georgia’s CON program is under attack in the General Assembly. Legislation to repeal or substantially change CON would make it easier for profit-seeking providers to skim well-insured patients away from nonprofit health systems for the most lucrative procedures. Georgia’s patients and its safety-net hospitals would pay the price.
Traditional free market principles simply don’t apply to the health care industry, as the government sets the prices doctors and hospitals receive for care rendered to a majority of patients, and hospitals receive almost no payment for meeting our obligation to provide care to those who are uninsured or underinsured. Communities understandably want 24/7 access to care, and nonprofit hospitals stand ready to provide care to anyone in need.
Though WellStar’s footprint has grown significantly since our founding in 1993, we remain committed to our mission to provide world-class, compassionate care close to home. As a nonprofit health system, we reinvest every dollar back into the communities we serve.
Our reinvestment initiatives have resulted in a new hospital in Paulding County and a new Intensive Care Unit in Douglas County. This reinvestment continues today as we build a state-of-the-art emergency department at Kennestone, a new cancer center in West Georgia and much more. Last year alone, WellStar contributed $648 million in community health benefits and had a $1.7 billion impact on Georgia’s economy. We won’t be able to continue to invest and improve if the General Assembly upends the market by eliminating CON.
Opponents of CON claim “deregulation” would both improve competition and lower prices. For most of Georgia, it would do neither. CON has been in place in Georgia (and 35 other states) for more than 35 years because it stabilizes care for all patients in our communities. Indiana recently reimplemented a CON law after deregulation failed to deliver on its promises.
These same opponents claim CON isn’t working. Yet in the last decade, the state considered 1,737 CON applications and 88 percent were approved. As a result, Georgia has the fourth-most ambulatory surgery centers in the nation, despite being the eighth most populous state in the nation.
No program is perfect, and WellStar has previously joined the Georgia Hospital Association, the Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals, and others to advocate for specific reforms that would actually make CON more effective. For example, we have sought an independent health strategies council to examine and modernize health care planning rules – ones free of profit-related motives.
WellStar wants to build upon CON’s ultimate goal of improving access to care, especially in rural areas. We are confident that our investments in telehealth, better reimbursement rates and crisis stabilization programs will help to address deficiencies in access in the days ahead.
We would like to thank the state leaders who have emerged as healthcare champions and have taken a thoughtful and measured approach to examining this important issue.
However, we oppose bills that would impose dramatic, damaging changes to the CON program. I hope you will join WellStar in asking your legislators to preserve the CON process in Georgia. Together, we can promote access to care for all, higher care quality and lower costs for you and me.
Candice L. Saunders is president and CEO of WellStar Health System.