JACKSON — Major area hospitals are looking to state health officials to make the next move in a yearlong clash over how large and advanced the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMC) can become without regulation.
UMC in Jackson must seek state approval before embarking on major construction projects or buying expensive, high-tech equipment, according to an opinion issued last week by the state attorney general’s office.
However, the state Department of Health may grant permission on a case-by-case basis, even if the academic medical center cannot prove a regional need for a certain facility or service, the opinion states.
Health Department representatives would not comment on the opinion, saying the department’s attorney was out of town.
The clash began last year when UMC filed an application with the Health Department to obtain equipment used in radiation treatment for cancer patients.
“As the state’s only academic health sciences center, the University of Mississippi Medical Center is obligated — and is required by its accrediting bodies — to train future physicians, nurses, dentists and allied health professionals in modern facilities using state-of-the-art technology,” Dr. James Keeton, vice chancellor for Health Affairs and dean of the School of Medicine, said in a statement.
UMC officials have said the medical center is striving to transform its image from the area’s charity hospital to the hospital of choice.
Hospitals in competition with UMC oppose the equipment acquisition, saying UMC did not prove a regional need.
A 24-year-old state law requires hospitals to petition the Health Department for a certificate of need before building additional hospitals or clinics or purchasing major equipment.
Attorneys for other hospital groups, including Baptist Medical Center, St. Dominic Hospital and Health Management Associates argue that allowing UMC to be exempt from the law would give it an unfair competitive advantage.
“If UMC was allowed to do that, it could saturate the market and prevent us from being able to expand or offer services,” said Tom Kirkland, attorney for HMA, which includes River Oaks, Central Mississippi Medical Center and Madison County Medical Center.
In response to UMC’s application, the Health Department requested an attorney general’s opinion. The attorney general’s office determined UMC was exempt from the certificate of need law, citing a 2000 opinion by then-Attorney General Mike Moore,
Moore withdrew his opinion after UMC voluntarily chose to abide by the certificate of need process.
Attorneys opposed the opinion met with Attorney General Jim Hood in March. Since then UMC’s application has been on hold.
Hood’s spokeswoman Jan Schaefer sent a copy of the new opinion to The Clarion-Ledger Friday without comment. The opinion is dated June 9, though most of the involved parties said they had not seen it as of June 11.
Some of the wording in the opinion could be favorable for UMC: “It is the opinion of this office that the Department of Health has the statutory discretion to make determinations … that services or activities provided by UMC, including UMC’s request for this particular equipment, are exempt from certain provisions of the (certificate of need) laws, when the request is necessary or desirable for UMC’s teaching or research mission.”
The opinion is favorable for other hospitals in that it says UMC is under the same certificate of need requirements as other hospitals. But area hospitals’ concerns are not fully satisfied.
“We remain concerned about the portion of the opinion that gives discretion to the Health Department as to whether or not a particular facility or equipment or service does not require a certificate of need,” Kirkland said.
The hospitals are seeking a hearing with the Health Department.