Contend Tanner will meet needs

Behavioral hospital opponents have say

by Clay Neely



The certificate of need appeal hearing for Newnan Behavioral Hospital resumed on Thursday with Tanner CEO Wayne Senfeld speaking on behalf of the growing need for pediatric and adult psychiatric care in the area.

Between 2009 and 2010, pediatric psychiatric services grew 8.6 percent statewide. Despite only serving adolescents, the pediatric program at Tanner/Willowbrooke operated above occupancy in 2011 and wound up using overflow beds to accommodate patients.

While the most recent period operated at 95.5 percent occupancy, the demand is expected to be even higher.

However, with their 30-bed, $5.8 million dollar expansion at Willowbrooke, representatives from Tanner Health testified that the need for the proposed Newnan Behavioral Hospital would no longer be necessary.

“That’s why we’re growing,” Senfeld said. “We want to be able to serve our community, which we consider Coweta to be a part of.”

While Senfeld acknowledged the need for behavioral health is growing in the state, he feels strongly that the recent 30-bed expansion at Willowbrooke will be able to accommodate the increase – stating that the additional beds would not only allow them to accept people from the Coweta area but from around the state.

The Willowbrooke expansion is currently set for completion by the end of the year.

Also, the proposed layout of the Newnan Behavioral Hospital has continued to be a source of discussion during the appeal, with Senfeld noting that patients between the ages of 5 and 17 years old would all be sharing the same living quarters if the initial plans for the hospital are approved.

“Part of our expansion at Willowbrooke was to help create a safe environment for children,” Senfeld said, referencing the notion that the initial design for Newnan Behavioral Hospital would not be able to properly accommodate children, adolescents and adults in a safe manner.

“The plans for Willowbrooke were focused on limiting exposure between adolescents and adults,” Senfeld said. “Do I think it’s realistic that a 10-bed unit with only one activity space could switch with ease? No, it’s impossible.”

However, counsel for Health Vest asked Senfeld if he recognized that upon the acceptance of any Certificate of Need, the next step is to submit plans and that the final architectural plans are often drastically different than those which were initially submitted.

“That may be the case, but what you initially submit needs to be close,” Senfeld said. “You can make modifications, but generally, the footprint doesn’t change.”

Paula Gresham, assistant administrator at Willowbrooke, spoke about the services Tanner offers its community and surrounding areas.

In an attempt to dispel the notion that accessibility is a problem for those seeking care at Willowbrooke, Gresham noted the transportation services that the facility provides for both patients and their family.

“It’s the responsibility of the facility to make distance a non-issue,” Gresham said. “It’s my responsibility to make sure everyone can participate in our programs.”

While Tanner does not currently own its own transportation fleet, it contracts with a local company which allows the hospital to reach patients who are unable to access their facilities through traditional transportation methods.

According to Gresham, if 10 families from Coweta require transportation to their facility, they can accommodate those needs.

“Is distance a factor?” Gresham asked. “No. When you have a five-day length of stay with a limited visitation period – if the family cannot get there, it’s our responsibility. It doesn’t matter if they are two minutes or 75 miles away.”

Gresham also noted that the proposed behavioral hospital in Newnan would do little in regards to alleviating waiting times in emergency rooms – citing that the two main issues in the long wait times are patients with no payer source and those who have a secondary medical issue.

“Unless they plan on taking a large number of indigent patients, I don’t see how they will improve Piedmont’s waiting times,” Gresham said.

Having served as an assessment supervisor since 1998, Gresham feels Tanner has prided itself on its extensive outreach services and views Coweta as a vital part of its service area – providing home counseling and meeting patients wherever they may feel they make the biggest impact.

In September 2013, Tanner began working with the Coweta County School System in an effort to embed a therapist in the school system. However, according to Gresham, these efforts stalled out upon US HealthVest’s proposal for the behavioral hospital.

“We received a letter saying they were going to stop and see what the new hospital could do,” Gresham said.

However, council representing US HealthVest noted that Tanner’s attempt to venture into the Coweta school system was made only after the Certificate of Need application was made.

The impact of losing resources was also a concern of Tanner – citing the loss of staff and patients upon the opening of Cancer Treatment Centers of America.

“We took quite a large hit from commercial payers due to CTCA,” Senfeld said. “When you have a new provider come in our service area, it seriously affects our ability to keep staff. In this market, we don’t have a deep pool of employees.”

According to Senfeld, the presence of Newnan Behavioral Hospital has already begun to affect their business. Discussions regarding a partial hospitalization program between Tanner and Piedmont Newnan came to a grinding halt when US HealthVest announced its intentions to repurpose the old hospital.

Also speaking at the appeal was Judge Joseph Wyant from the Coweta County Juvenile Court. While he expressed his gratitude toward the work Tanner has provided in the past, he feels the best thing for the community is a greater pool of resources to choose from.

While Wyant was enthusiastic about the expansion, it was simply because they were the only game in town.

“Tanner has been very professional, answered calls and helped out, but it’s not always easy because of the distance,” Wyant said. “We, as a community, would like to have something closer. The easier services are to access, the more they will be utilized.”

While Wyant is aware of the transportation system in place, he said that many parents don’t like the idea of their children being on a bus.

Wyant feels that the addition of the new behavioral hospital would help the court in that it is often difficult for them to address mental health needs and could benefit from a partner who can assist on a daily basis, thus making it more convenient to those who need them.

When asked if the new addition at Willowbrooke would sway his decision, Wyant responded that he doesn’t view that as the core issue.

“I support anyone that would come to our community to help our citizens,” Wyant said. “However, the more options that are available to our community, the more we can help.”

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