Friday, December 26, 2003

Specialty heart hospital on hold

By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Plans for a $60 million doctor-owned heart hospital have been delayed indefinitely, organizers say. They were considering sites in Norwood and Sharonville.

The future of the facility was placed in doubt when Congress passed a Medicare prescription drug bill in November. Along with help for seniors, the bill included an 18-month moratorium on doctors referring patients to hospitals they co-own.

The heart hospital was proposed earlier this year as a joint venture between the Ohio Heart Health Center - the area's biggest cardiac doctor group - and Deaconess Associations - the parent of Deaconess Hospital.

"It really is a matter of stepping back and saying, what can we do?" said Mark McDonald, chief operating officer for Ohio Heart.

The idea, according to chief proponent Dr. Dean Kereiakes, was to build a "center of excellence" for heart treatment and research by 2005 that would counter the proliferation of smaller, less sophisticated heart centers in Cincinnati's suburbs.

The proposal has been heavily criticized by executives of non-profit hospitals as unnecessary and potentially harmful to their organizations.

It also had raised questions about which doctors would be doing most of the work at the recently opened $77 million cardiac wing at Christ Hospital.

The moratorium - which calls for studying how for-profit, doctor-owned hospitals have affected other community hospitals and physician referral patterns - has raised doubts among potential lenders, doctor-investors and others, McDonald said.

The bill creating the moratorium did exempt ventures that were already under development. But it is not clear if the Ohio Heart proposal would qualify.

It could take six months just to resolve the exemption issue.

Even then, nobody is sure what kinds of regulations Congress might pass after the moratorium ends, McDonald said.

Now, some talks have resumed between the Ohio Heart doctors, the Health Alliance of Greater Cincinnati, TriHealth and others to determine whether a new heart center can or should be built under a different ownership structure.

It is too early to say what sort of structure, which organizations, or what sort of facility might be involved.

The key goal for the Ohio Heart group: much more physician control over the way services are provided.

"It has never been about owning a hospital. It has always been about meaningful physician governance," McDonald said.

Among those left watching the proceedings: city officials of Norwood and Sharonville.

Both governments have approved tax incentives and other perks to build the heart hospital in their communities.

In Sharonville, a $2.7 million grant requires the project to break ground in 2004. But that deadline probably could be extended, said Ted Mack, director of building, planning and economic development.

In Norwood, a site plan approved in October is good for a year and could be extended for another year by the city's planning commission. There was no hard deadline on tax breaks recently approved by city council, said Rick Dettmer, development director.

"We're trying to keep our options open and accommodate their schedule," Dettmer said.


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