FLORENCE — The boxes of files and exhibits that were stacked shoulder high for more than two weeks in the second floor conference room at the Marriott Shoals are now gone.
Now, the wait begins on the future of a planned 300-bed hospital and cancer center in Florence.
The contested case hearing on the two projects proposed by RegionalCare Hospital Partners ended earlier this week after 12 days of testimony. It will still be weeks, possibly months, before an opinion is released by Bill Chandler, the administrative law judge who heard both sides state their cases.
When the transcript is completed, attorneys will have a chance to file motions and briefs to emphasize additional points. Chandler will then be given a set amount of time to issue his opinion to the state's Certificate of Need board.
The ultimate decision rests with that board, which is commonly referred to as the CON board, unless one of the parties involves - RegionalCare, Helen Keller Hospital and Alliance - wants to seek legal action. Keller Hospital and Alliance Oncology are contesting RegionalCare's CON application.
Chandler said he will seek guidance from Alva Lambert, executive director of the State Health Planning and Development Agency about a timeline for receiving briefs and issuing his recommendation.
Given the extensive information presented at the hearing, the certificate of need review board likely won't hear the cases until summer, officials said.
At that meeting, each side will have a pre-determined amount of time to present their case on the projects before the review board deliberates.
During the contested case hearing in Florence, attorneys for RegionalCare spent more than a week calling witnesses to support the CON applications for ECM's replacement hospital and a new cancer center. The next week consisted of witnesses for Keller Hospital and Alliance who testified about deficiencies they saw in the applications and reason why the plans RegionalCare put together need to be changed.
Keller representatives have said they don't oppose a new hospital in Lauderdale County, but contend the one planned is larger than is allowable under the state health plan. Alliance opposes the addition of radiation oncology to cancer treatment services offered at ECM. Alliance has two clinics that already offer radiation oncology in the Shoals.
Now it's up to Chandler to sift through the papers and issue his opinion on how the two projects should move forward. His recommendation is not binding.
While work to correct and verify the 3,000-plus pages of testimony, the record of the hearing will remain open because of changes in the corporate leadership at RegionalCare's Brentwood, Tenn. headquarters, which took place during the proceeding. Keller attorneys asked for that provision and stated they weren't satisfied by a letter sent by RegionalCare CEO Marty Rash about the company's commitment to the project.
Rash, who testified during the hearing, has been named executive chairman at RegionalCare and Kent Wallace will assume the CEO title on March 1. He will take on the duties of former Chief Operating Officer John Rutledge, who is leaving the company to "pursue other business endeavors," according to a company news release.
"It raises more questions than it answers," said Will Somerville, an attorney for Helen Keller.
Attorneys for all sides have until the transcript is completed to submit evidence about how the leadership change that could affect the Florence projects.
In his letter, Rash said RegionalCare remains committed to the project.
"I also want to reiterate, just as I testified on Feb. 4, 2013, that our company is strong both financially and operationally," the letter states. "We remain committed to this project and if granted a certificate of need, intend to construct a 300-bed, $250 million hospital."
Jennifer Edwards can be reached at 256-740-5754 or jennifer.edwards@TimesDaily.com.
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