Several of Georgia's 72 public hospitals are considering restructuring to shield their strategic plans and other public records from Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp.'s inquisitive eyes.
Public hospital officials who asked not to be identified told MODERN HEALTHCARE that Columbia has requested hundreds of documents from their facilities under open records laws. The papers describe their five-year marketing and business plans as well as pricing strategies and employee information.
Columbia officials in Georgia and the company's Nashville, Tenn., headquarters didn't return phone calls seeking comment on the officials' statements.
During the past several years, more than 20 public hospitals in Georgia have restructured into private, not-for-profit hospitals, according to the Georgia Hospital Association. Many of them did so to provide services outside their county or taxing district or to increase the amount of money they could borrow, said Holly Bates, a GHA spokeswoman.
"As we move into integrated delivery systems, take on risk and become true players in the marketplace, many hospitals feel the state hospital authority law is too restrictive," Bates said. "They want to compete with those (private hospitals) that don't have to comply with those laws."
But most restructured public hospitals lease the hospital buildings from founding hospital authorities. Under those arrangements, the hospitals continue to be subject to Georgia's open records and meetings laws.
This loophole allows the public, newspapers, payers and corporations such as Columbia to gain access to internal planning documents. "Columbia is very aggressive in seeking access to public records not to illuminate the public, but for their own competitive purposes," said one executive who requested anonymity.
Bates didn't mention Columbia by name. But public hospital executives said Columbia's relentless use of Georgia's open records laws has left them no option but to close the public books by purchasing the assets of the hospitals from their hospital authorities.
For example, 282-bed Hamilton Medical Center in Dalton announced plans in January to purchase the assets of the hospital from Dalton-Whitfield County Hospital Authority.
Hamilton's plans call for it to borrow an unspecified amount of money through a tax-exempt revenue anticipation bond to purchase the hospital, officials said. The funds will be placed in an indigent-care trust fund to serve area residents.
Two other public hospitals that have recently converted into private, not-for-profit hospitals are 518-bed Medical Center of Central Georgia in Macon and 65-bed Crisp Regional Hospital in Cordele.
All three public hospitals compete with Columbia hospitals.