About Amy Umble:
Amy Umble is health reporter for The Free Lance-Star
Health Systems Agency closes
Today was the final day of operations for the Northwestern Virginia Health Systems Agency. The agency closed when its money ran out.
The agency received no funding from the General Assembly for the last two years. It was operating on its reserves and, in a small way, from the fees that applicants pay when they want a state “certificate of public need.” That money ran out at 5 p.m. today.
The agency, a nonprofit, private corporation, and Stuart Mills, its executive director, were a part of the way Virginia regulates the health care industry. That system will be streamlined now, but it will feature less local input.
“The wool is very easily pulled over the eyes of people who aren’t in the trenches, who don’t walk the halls of the hospitals, who don’t know the physicians and the other players in the community,” Mills said, in a phone conversation this afternoon.
The agency’s role is illustrated by looking at MediCorp Health System and its plan to build another cancer center, this one at Mary Washington Hospital. MediCorp also operates a cancer center on State Route 3.
Virginia believes that supply drives demand in the health care industry, so to hold down costs, it requires anyone who wants to buy an expensive piece of equipment or begin or expand a major health service to get a COPN. MediCorp filed its application this spring and is ready for the next step in process.
Until today, that would have meant that company officials and their Richmond lawyers would have appeared before a local volunteer council, part of Mills’ Health Systems Agency. This group, meeting usually at one of the local libraries, would have heard from anyone who wanted to speak and would have recommended that MediCorp’s plan be approved or rejected.
Then, the MediCorp caravan would have gone to Culpeper where the board of the Health System’s Agency, another volunteer group, would have heard a similar presentation and again recommended approval or rejection. Finally, the company would have carried its application to Richmond, where Dr. Karen Remley, the state health commissioner, would have the final say.
Now, with the Health Systems Agency dead, it’s not clear how the process will work. Mills said that there will still be local public hearings, say on MediCorp’s plan, but they’ll be conducted by employees of the state Health Department. Applicants will then bypass the regional review in Culpeper and head straight to Richmond.
As for Mills, he believes the process will suffer without the local perspective.
“That’s what the councils and the board provide,” he said. “They’re dispassionate, but they’re also informed consumers of the services they regulate. You’re never going to get that in Richmond. I just fear that this is going to become a distant fight that’s ruled by lawyers.”