ATLANTA – Attorneys for the two hospitals that the state denied permission to build a Columbia County facility took turns Thursday attacking the winning application submitted by Georgia Regents University Medical Center.

Doctors Hospital and University Hospital are appealing their denials last year by the Georgia Department of Community Health. A hearing officer, Ellwood F. Oakley III, started the proceedings by pointing to eight, three-ring binders on the table beside him, each containing hundreds of pages of evidence.

“This is a very daunting set of documents to get into the record,” he said.

As each of the 12 lawyers for the various groups took their turns speaking, another notebook was added to the stack.

“I think there is going to be substantial detail over the course of the hearing,” said Lawrence Meyers, attorney for University Hospital.

The hearing is expected to last until June 30, and Oakley warned that the days would be long. Meyers said he’ll be challenging Georgia Regents’ financial projections.

“We say from a financial feasibility standpoint these numbers simply don’t work,” he said.

Georgia Regents’ is ready to defend those projections, said attorney Robert Threlkeld. “It’s not reasonable to argue that the costs of Georgia Regions are unreasonable,” he said.  Doctors Hospital argued that the department used the wrong logic in making its decision.

“Our view is the department must consider the impact on the healthcare-delivery system overall,” said Doctors’ attorney Steve Ecenia.

The first witness was a retired ophthalmologist, Dr. Al Scott, who served on a short-lived committee the county commission assembled to evaluate proposals from the three hospitals. He testified that, after several private meetings among the committee and the chance to hear presentations from each hospital, the group cast secret ballots that turned out “strongly in favor of University.”

However, the committee’s vice chairman, Barry Paschal, didn’t testify but offered a different account.

“There was never anything like a straw vote,” he said.

After The Augusta Chronicle protested the closed-door meetings, the committee met in public and voted to not endorse any proposal. Scott said that was because some members had business relations with the hospitals that they did not want to endanger with a public vote.

With the second witness and more notebooks, the hearing began to grind down in a showdown of competing experts and statistics, starting with quality ratings.

Oakley said it had been more than a decade since the last appeal over a new Georgia hospital. With several court decisions on other facilities and slight changes to the law since, it’s certain the attorneys will have plenty of legal issues to debate in addition to the testimony of the witnesses.

Reporter Tom Corwin contributed to this story.

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