A Burt Jones-backed hospital overhaul draws scrutiny

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Subsidiary of father’s petroleum company owns land near site of Butts County megaproject

Lt. Gov. Burt Jones is promoting a measure that would pave the way for more hospitals to be built in smaller counties as part of a pending overhaul of health care rules that could financially benefit his family’s business.

The Republican is one of the most powerful supporters of Senate Bill 99, which would allow the construction of new hospitals in counties of fewer than 50,000 people without what is known as a “certificate of need” from state regulators, even if they’re close to existing hospitals. Some existing hospitals oppose the measure, saying it could endanger struggling hospitals that serve their communities.

Jones considers SB 99′s passage a top priority, saying through a spokeswoman that it’s a matter of “quality health care” for rural communities. The measure cleared the Senate in February and is set for a vote Tuesday in the House Health and Human Services Committee.

Sponsors also acknowledge an impetus of the legislation is a proposed privately owned 100-bed hospital that could be fast-tracked for Jones’ native Butts County if the measure is adopted.

It’s not clear where the hospital would be built, but some local and state health care officials expect it to be located on land the lieutenant governor’s father, Bill Jones, owns near the sprawling River Park development along I-75 in the Middle Georgia county.

The elder Jones, who owns Jones Petroleum, is also president of Interstate Health Systems. Property records indicate that since 2021, the company bought more than 250 acres just south of River Park for roughly $30 million.

Butts County leaders have endorsed building a new hospital, saying the aging 25-bed Sylvan Grove Hospital that serves the area can no longer meet the demands of the growing community. A 2021 feasibility study conducted for local officials found more than 50 additional hospital beds are needed.

The state’s largest hospital firms have staunchly opposed changes to the certificate of need program, which governs the construction and expansion of health care facilities and regulates what kinds of services they can offer.

Wellstar Health System said the proposed facility could not only threaten the Sylvan Grove facility it operates in the county seat of Jackson but also a nearby hospital Wellstar runs in Griffin.

Renderings obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from Butts County depict a hospital campus on parcels owned by Bill Jones’ company. The lieutenant governor’s office, however, said land hasn’t been designated for the hospital project.

“Lt. Gov. Jones will never be intimidated by Gold Dome special interests. And those same special interests have zero business dictating to rural communities how to address topics as critical as expanding health care access,” Jones spokeswoman Ines Owens said.

“The lieutenant governor is not interested in maintaining the status quo for those trying to protect themselves at the expense of rural Georgians in the over 100 counties SB 99 would help,” Owens added.

‘Trial lawyer playpen’

The elder Jones has been one of the foremost champions of River Park, and he’s long said a new hospital is needed to serve Butts County.

Butts County’s population was 25,434 in 2020, according to U.S. census data, up 8% since 2010. Though that’s less than the 11% population growth seen statewide, the county is poised to boom with the pending River Park project and growth moving south from bustling Henry County and north from Macon along I-75.

At a House hearing last year for a similar measure, Bill Jones said Sylvan Grove needed to be replaced with a newer hospital. He cited his own traffic-choked drives to Emory University’s health care complex for medical procedures that aren’t offered in his hometown facility.

“We feel like it’s time,” he told the committee in support of the measure, which ultimately failed to clear the Legislature.

At the time, the elder Jones said he’d met with lawyers who told him that to obtain a certificate of need for a new hospital, it would take a team of attorneys who bill $600 an hour over a three-year period.

“We have an apparatus seemingly that permits anybody from any area in the state to come in and complain,” Jones said. “And then it gets to be a trial lawyer playpen, you see.”



The program, which dates to the 1970s, was designed to control health care spending and spread services across rural areas. The rural hospitals funded by a 1946 federal law could often not survive, their advocates say, if investors were allowed to cherry-pick their few profitable services and leave them with the money losers, such as emergency care for the poor. In fact, between 2011 and 2021, eight of the state’s rural hospitals shut their doors for good.

Powerful health care firms also say the certificate of need program helps blunt hiring wars over medical professionals who are already in short supply.

But critics say the program prevents competition and empowers health care monopolies in underserved areas. In a February letter, Lisa Durden of the Butts County Chamber of Commerce said a new hospital was one of the community’s most pressing needs.

“Patients presenting serious health concerns such as heart issues or strokes must be transported to another facility,” she wrote. “Given our location, traffic concerns oftentimes present additional obstacles to patients who need immediate care.”

The new hospital could wind up being a key part of River Park, a commercial and industrial development that covers more than 1,200 acres.

Monty Veazey, the head of the Georgia Alliance of Community Hospitals, said he expects the new facility to be built on the property that the Jones family owns.

By 2040, River Park is expected to include more than a dozen warehouses spanning more than 20 million square feet, or about the size of 13 Lenox Square malls, in addition to 1 million square feet of commercial space. Doug Adams, a Henry County developer, is behind the project, which expects to create 10,000 jobs and represent a $2.07 billion investment.

According to a master plan, Proctor & Gamble purchased a 2.2 million-square-foot distribution center, while at least six other buildings were either under contract or purchased by other developers.

A development of regional impact notice was filed last summer for the project’s third phase, which will include roughly 4.3 million square feet of industrial space.

Veazey, who opposes the Senate measure, said he worries that overhauling certificate of need rules could lead to dozens of at-risk hospitals being pushed out of business by privately owned facilities that don’t offer emergency services.

The new facility might offer only lucrative services, he said, such as cancer treatment and surgery. That would divert the well-insured patients who would previously have gone to the community hospital — in turn, leaving the old hospital with the patients who can’t pay but must be treated by law if they show up in the emergency room.

”A new one could come in there that’s owned by a hedge fund, and build and put the community hospital out of business,” he said.

‘Irony is rich’

Wellstar, which said it’s invested millions of dollars to modernize facilities in the area, has much at stake beyond the two facilities it already operates in the region.

The Cobb County-based health care system has also drawn criticism from Georgia leaders after shuttering the Atlanta Medical Center last year, a closure that triggered calls from Democrats for a federal investigation into Wellstar’s practices.

It is also negotiating a deal to partner with the Augusta University Health System — and possibly take it over. State lawmakers recently approved spending $105 million in taxpayer money on a new medical records system for the Medical College of Georgia, which is part of the system.

Some state officials privately worry that Wellstar could abandon the deal if the certificate of need program is overhauled. At a February hearing, Wellstar General Counsel Leo Reichert warned of financial fallout if SB 99 is adopted.

“The threat of a new hospital coming and landing right there in the middle of it is going to cause significant harm to those two facilities,” Reichert testified.

State Sen. Ben Watson, who chairs the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, scoffed during a recent interview that Wellstar was simultaneously negotiating to build a new hospital in a wealthy community near Augusta.

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

Credit: Arvin Temkar/AJC

“I mean, I hate to use the word ‘hypocritical,’ ” the Savannah Republican said, “but it sure sounds that way, doesn’t it?”

The infighting could get bound up in House-Senate negotiations in the final days of the legislative session, with proposals still pending involving sports betting, new limits on health care for transgender children and public safety proposals.

Senate lawmakers are keen to point out that their chamber has approved more than 60 House measures. Only a handful of Senate proposals have cleared the House.

For his part, Burt Jones is eager to cast the battle as one against powerful health care companies who care little for rural services.

“It’s the same special interests that shut down Atlanta Medical Center last fall, causing overflow to other hospitals throughout Atlanta,” said Owens, the lieutenant governor’s aide. “The irony is rich.”