Jones retreats on hospital overhaul, says lobbyists dangled deal he refused

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

Credit: Natrice Miller/AJC

The LG abandons 2023 push to rewrite health care rules

Lt. Gov. Burt Jones abandoned an effort to rewrite health care regulations this year, but not before accusing lobbyists of dangling a deal to allow a new hospital in his hometown if he relented on a broader deregulation push that has divided state powerbrokers.

The Republican wrote in an op-ed published Saturday in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that unnamed lobbyists on several occasions “walked into my office offering to narrow this legislation to only benefit my hometown and family.”

“I profusely refused because this is not about one issue, it is about expanding access for all of rural Georgia,” Jones wrote in the op-ed. “This is not about one community. This policy and my persistence to see it pass is for all rural communities.”

It came as he retreated from a bitter feud over stalled legislation that has divided top Republicans and could threaten negotiations by Wellstar Health System to potentially take over a struggling state-run hospital system.

The measure, Senate Bill 99, would allow counties with fewer than 50,000 people to build hospitals without first obtaining a costly “certificate of need” from state regulators.

That would pave the way for a proposed 100-bed private hospital that could be built on his father’s land near his hometown in Jackson. Wellstar opposes the measure because the Butts County development could compete with two nearby hospitals it operates.

In a tweet Saturday, Jones acknowledged that the measure wouldn’t pass the legislative session this year, but indicated he would fight “those who want to protect the status quo” over the rest of his term.

While Jones didn’t single out the lobbyists accused of making the offer, he wrote in his op-ed that Wellstar has sought to sully his reputation and spread misinformation about his motives.

“Their pretentious belief that they know what’s best for rural Georgia is astounding,” he wrote of the Cobb County-based company.

In a statement, Wellstar said Jones’ accusations were false, “deeply unfortunate and regrettable.”

“Wellstar and other healthcare partners have voiced concerns with SB 99 and similar pieces of legislation for many years, and we conveyed those concerns to lawmakers in a respectful, informative way earlier this session - as we have in the past,” read Wellstar’s statement. “Any accusation to the contrary is simply not true.”

A looming impasse

The impasse over health care regulations has loomed over the final days of the legislative session as Jones seeks to simultaneously push his measure and punish Wellstar and its allies for opposing it.

The Republican orchestrated the passage of a Senate spending plan that strips $105 million from Gov. Brian Kemp’s spending proposal — the same amount that legislators recently approved for a records system that could benefit Wellstar.

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Senate lawmakers are also poised next week to vote on a measure that would roll back tax benefits that Wellstar now receives, along with a tweak that protects Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta after it was inadvertently dinged in the rebuke.

And Senate lawmakers engineered a last-minute revamp of a mental health bill that had already cleared the House 163-3. Jones’ allies warned the mental health package, championed by House leaders, could stall if his hospital overhaul failed.

The flurry of moves comes despite an olive branch from House lawmakers in the form of a resolution by state Rep. Sharon Cooper, R-Marietta, to form a study committee to evaluate the “certificate of need” program that Jones wants to remake. Senate leaders floated their own study committee two weeks ago.

It’s unclear whether Jones and his allies will continue to press efforts to punish Wellstar now that he’s acknowledged his push to rewrite hospital regulations this year is doomed.

State officials are adamant about scuttling Jones’ measure because they want Wellstar to move forward with a potential takeover of the Augusta University Health System, the financially teetering organization that runs the Medical College of Georgia.

This week, Moody’s downgraded the health system’s bonds due to cashflow struggles and a “very weak liquidity position,” and Kemp’s allies have pressed legislators to salvage the deal by rebuffing the Jones-backed legislation.

“That agreement in partnership is so critical to the future of the Medical College of Georgia and to medical education in Georgia,” Sonny Perdue, the chancellor of the state Board of Regents, said in an interview. “We don’t want to jeopardize that.”

Staff Writer Vanessa McCray contributed to this report.

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC

Credit: Miguel Martinez/AJC