Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Hospital's Use of Funds Questioned Surgery Quest Probe Sought

Newspaper article The Florida Times Union

Hospital's Use of Funds Questioned Surgery Quest Probe Sought

Article excerpt

Byline: Terry Dickson, Times-Union staff writer

State Sen. Rene D. Kemp, D-Hinesville, has asked state Attorney General Thurbert Baker to investigate Satilla Health Service's use of Medicare and Medicaid funds in its successful bid for state approval to perform open heart surgery.

In a letter to Baker, Kemp asserts that the hospital used "co-mingled Medicare and Medicare funds'' to pay former state legislator Robin Williams $150,000 to lobby on its behalf. A hearing officer from the Georgia Department of Community Health's Division of Health Planning granted a geographic exception to Satilla Regional Medical Center two months ago, saying patients from the hospital's nine-county service area had to travel too far for life-saving open heart surgery.

Satilla Regional "may have been entitled to it,'' Kemp said of the approval, called a certificate of need. "I don't know.''

Kemp's request comes just six days before a review panel hears objections on the certificate of need from two competing hospitals, South Georgia Medical Center in Valdosta and Memorial Health University Hospital in Savannah.

Not only does Kemp question the legality of using Medicare and Medicaid funds, he also asks Baker to investigate whether Williams illegally influenced the administrative law judge who ruled in Satilla Health Services' favor.

And Kemp is getting help from at least one member of Satilla Regional's board of directors, Frank Eldridge Jr., a Waycross resident.

Eldridge, a former state legislator and now secretary of the Georgia Senate, disassociated himself from any consideration of hiring Williams and made it clear he thought it was improper.

The hospital should receive a certificate of need because of its excellent reputation as a health care provider, Eldridge wrote Board Chairman Ashley Denton April 17.

"It troubles me greatly that my reputation and Satilla Health Services' reputation can be besmirched by any association of said Robin Williams,'' he wrote.

Denton and Robert Trimm, president of Satilla Health Services, issued a joint statement yesterday calling the allegations "utterly baseless and harmful to the best interests of the community.''

"We are surprised and appalled by the allegations made to Sen. Kemp by Mr. Eldridge,'' they said in a release. "They are totally without merit and, therefore, can only bring harm to our community.''

Williams' services were entirely ethical and only a small part of a community-wide effort by local leaders, physicians, patients and others, the statement said.

Satilla Health Services' lawyers reviewed the allegations Eldridge made months ago and found them to be without merit, Denton and Trimm said.

Trimm also denied any improper influence on behalf of the hospital.

"We emphatically deny that any inappropriate contact was made with the administrative law judge by Mr. …

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