State hearing begins for proposed use of old facility
by Clay Neely
An appeals hearing for the proposed Newnan Behavioral Hospital’s state Certificate of Need began Monday in Atlanta.
The hearing is expected to continue through the week and resume in July after a break for the July 4th holiday.
Tanner Medical Center, Riverwoods Behavioral Health and Southern Crescent Behavioral Health System all filed requests to intervene in the administrative hearing.
Serving as the hearing officer is Ellwood Oakley, III, Esq.
VestNewnan, currently doing business as Newnan Behavioral Hospital, began the appeal hearing with the testimonies of various health-based representatives speaking on behalf of the hospital proposed for the former Piedmont Newnan Hospital location on Hospital Road in Newnan.
One of the primary arguments made on behalf of the proposed hospital is the inability of Coweta area residents to access care on a local level. The proposed hospital falls within the SSDR 4 region that is comprised of Coweta, Carroll, Upson, Lamar, Butts, Spalding, Pike, Meriwether, Troup and Heard counties.
Currently, Tanner is the only existing provider in the entire SSDR 4 planning region for behavioral health.
Joy Shirley, director of aging with Three Rivers Regional Commission, spoke in support of the proposed hospital – one of many testifying to the factor that distance is playing in access to behavioral health services and the need to make them more accessible within the SSDR 4 service area.
“There is no program in our region that serves geriatric mental health and many are not willing to make a trip to Atlanta,” Shirley said. “Not just Coweta but the surrounding rural communities – they view Riverdale or Atlanta as a foreign country. The distance is the biggest problem for the seniors. The traffic, the distance – they watch the Atlanta news that views a lot of scariness. So the distance issue affects the follow-up treatment and, as a result, their conditions worsen.”
Shirley spoke of those who are able to make the drive or may be assisting a loved one who are also juggling a job and other factors that make the distance factor an emotional and financial burden as well.
“Family participation is very important,” Shirley said. “The involvement of caregivers is a major factor. In the mental health field, that support system is a major factor.”
Dr. Jeffrey Folk, vice president of medical affairs and chief medical officer for Piedmont Newnan Hospital, said the lack of a localized behavioral health provider is putting a strain on the operations of Piedmont Newnan’s emergency room.
“If the patient in crisis is exhibiting signs of violent or abusive behavior, they require the allocation of more resources,” he said. “A patient with a behavioral health issue takes three times as long to process than the length of a regular patient, and it becomes a safety issue.”
Since Piedmont does not offer behavioral health services, it is required to make arrangements with providers who can.
“When we referred to Tanner, they would arrive at our facility two to three hours after we cleared the patient. Once they performed an evaluation, they would then attempt to reach their director to run the case by them. In some instances, they experienced delays in simply establishing contact with their director. After that, they would need to work out the insurance issues, which usually took around 45 minutes,” Folk said. “Once everything was completed, a local ambulance or member from the Sheriff’s Department was needed in order to transport the patient, which only furthered the delays”
Since working with RiverWood, Piedmont Newnan’s average seems to be around 87 minutes after they’re initially called, which has helped decrease the overall time.
“Still we’re talking about two to three times longer in the ER than normal patients,” Folk said. “We’re in a community with 129,000 people and growing. We have people living longer and more mental illness is increasing across the country. Instead of getting treatment, they get incarcerated or homeless. We need community resources nearby.”
As senior director of emergency services for Piedmont Fayette, Andy Steele also sees the surge in the need for a more local option for providing behavioral health care.
“Because these patients don’t meet standard admission criteria and since we can’t place them outside, they remain in the ER,” Steele said. “We don’t have isolation rooms, so they are mixed in with our standard patients. Many are manic and agitated and need to be restrained after kicking, screaming. A higher level of care is required for these patients.”
Steele stated that Piedmont Fayette fully supports the proposed hospital.
“We still have capacity issues with behavioral health,” Steele said. “The need continues to grow and we haven’t been able to solve it in both state and region.”
Members of Coweta’s legal system also spoke to the various benefits that a local behavioral health facility would provide.
Coweta State Court Judge John Herbert Cranford sees individuals with behavioral issues on a weekly basis and feels that the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” approach is not only antiquated, but costly to taxpayers.
Cranford believes treatment is the best solution and wishes to continue working toward that direction.
“Georgia, traditionally, has done a poor job criminally with mental health issues,” Cranford said. “If a person is a danger to society, that’s one thing. If someone is mentally ill and not a threat, it’s bad for the community, for taxpayers and for them.”
Cranford said the current process of sending individuals to a facility in Columbus is no longer a viable option.
“They’re so backed up down there,” Cranford said. “If the individual is not a threat, they’re right back on the street and then, subsequently, back in jail. It’s a costly cycle.”
Coweta Sheriff Mike Yeager also echoed previous statements regarding the manpower that is used by the sheriff’s office in the transport of individuals to treatment facilities across the state.
“All these issues are not new,” Yeager said. “A hospital in our community would possibly remove us as a step in the healing process.”
Kathy Platt is an advocate for Platt HMC Inc., which helped draft the proposed Certificate of Need for the Newnan Behavioral Hospital. She spoke of the advantages such a facility would provide.
“Travel time would be significantly improved with decreased mileage and travel times as opposed to Tanner,” Platt said. “The presence of the proposed behavioral health hospital will increase accessibility throughout the service area.”
Platt noted that the Newnan Behavioral Hospital is, on average, 35 minutes away for service area patients who are living in the SSDR 4 region, while other facilities are an average of 43 to 68 minutes away.
According to Platt, Tanner currently services under 9 percent of adults and under 7 percent of pediatric patients that come from Coweta, Heard, Troup, Meriwether and Fayette.
“I don’t see how the proposed behavioral hospital could possibly have a negative impact on Tanner, based on those factors,” Platt said. “There is no doubt that people in the community are asking for these services.”