Cancer hospital skirts Legislature in bid for more Georgia patients

Cancer Treatment Centers of America’s big lobbying effort couldn’t convince the Legislature this year to let it see more Georgia patients.

But on Thursday, a state board approved a plan that could help the politically-connected facility in Newnan shed its in-state patient cap. In doing so, it reignited a decade-long war between Georgia’s hospitals and the national cancer treatment chain, which has a huge stable of well-connected lobbyists and a track record of generous giving to elected officials.

The decision gives the company the chance to get around elected officials, who stalled its bid during the 2015 session. The company said that it is unfair to Georgia patients to have to turn them away.

Other hospitals counter that if the company wants to see more Georgia patients, it should go through the same process they face if they want to expand. They also contend the company cherry-picks patients with the highest-paying insurance coverage while leaving them to shoulder the burden of care of Medicaid and other indigent cancer patients.

Department of Community Health Commissioner Clyde Reese said his board’s decision moves the venue for the fight over who provides cancer treatment in Georgia from the General Assembly to the state agency.

Asked whether Gov. Nathan Deal weighed in on the change, Reese said, “I report to the governor. We’re an executive branch agency. So I do not do anything that the governor would be opposed to. I’ll just put it that way.”

Jen Talaber, the governor’s spokeswoman, said, “The governor was aware the board was voting on the issue today but did not weigh in on the matter one way or another.”

Georgia typically requires hospitals to go through a stringent “Certificate of Need” process that is intended to prevent an oversupply of healthcare facilities and to control costs. But in 2008 the General Assembly allowed Cancer Treatment Centers of America to open the Newnan facility without going through the process because it was touted as a destination hospital that would draw patients to Georgia. As such, lawmakers limited it to 50 beds and required that at least 65 percent of its patients come from out of state.

The hospital in July petitioned the state to change its Certificate of Need rules so that it could seek approval to become a general acute care hospital that would not have to turn away Georgia patients.

In response, Reese recommended that the board approve an “administrative bridge” that would allow a “destination cancer hospital” to apply to change into a general hospital. That would give the hospital the ability to expand and see more local patients, which it can’t do under its current designation.

The DCH board’s decision Thursday to give initial approval to the rule change kicked off a public comment period. A final vote is scheduled for November.

In a written statement Thursday, the company said it was looking forward to reviewing the proposed rule and determining its response.

“We remain committed to working with our public officials to increase access to the highest quality cancer care available,” the statement says.

Georgia hospitals are expected to fight final approval of the rule, and go to court if that effort fails. “These proposed rule changes are clearly outside current law as, once again, CTCA seeks special treatment for themselves,” said Georgia Hospital Association President Earl Rogers. “While we will continue to gather input from the entire Georgia hospital community, expect GHA to vigorously oppose this proposal at each step.”

However, Monty Veazey, president of the Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals, called the board’s action a special-interest move that will win final approval in November.

“They have done by policy what they couldn’t get done by the Legislature,” Veazey said.

Cancer Treatment Centers of America quickly learned the political ropes in Georgia when it sought to enter the market. The company hired a team of top contract lobbyists, found a leading state lawmaker to promote its cause and spread big money around at the Capitol.

More than two dozen lobbyists have registered to push the company’s agenda over the past decade, including former Senate Majority Leader Pete Robinson, former House Majority Leader Jerry Keen, the veteran team of Mo Thrash and John Haliburton and top, longtime health care lobbyists like Wendi Clifton, Chandler Haydon and Sheila Humberstone.

The lobbyists spent nearly $40,000 on dinners and trips for lawmakers from early 2007 through the 2008 session. Besides flying lawmakers to their facilities across the country, Cancer Treatment lobbyists took legislators to a PGA Championship tournament and, in one case, spent nearly $4,000 on a single dinner for Senate Republicans.

The bill’s lead sponsor, then-Senate Majority Leader Tommie Williams, R-Lyons, received about $11,000 in campaign contributions from the company and was put on the hospital’s board.

Since its push began to enter Georgia, the company and its employees have contributed almost $400,000 to state party political action committees and the campaigns of lawmakers and other state leaders.

The company’s executives, for instance, helped organize a fundraiser for Deal in Newnan last fall during his re-election campaign. Deal collected $12,500 from Cancer Treatment executives Sept. 23 after attending a ribbon-cutting at their Southeastern Regional Medical Center.

Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, a likely candidate for governor in 2018, has collected more than $24,000 in contributions from Cancer Treatment Centers.

The latest legislative push has brought a return of political spending by CTCA. The company’s lobbyists have spent more than $9,000 in the past year and a half on lawmakers, mostly for meals and hospital tours.

Cancer Treatment Centers of America has hospitals in Philadelphia, Chicago, Tulsa and Phoenix, in addition to the Newnan facility. The chain, which has become well-known nationally through extensive advertising, bills itself as offering a unique, patient-centered approach to cancer that combines the latest treatments with natural therapies.

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