COLUMBIA — The race is on to build as many as 100 hospital beds in Berkeley County.
Two of the region's biggest health care providers, each seeking to build the first acute-care hospital in the fast-growing county, presented their rival proposals before state regulators Thursday.
Trident Health System wants to expand its existing Moncks Corner medical center into a $115 million, 50-bed hospital. Roper St. Francis Healthcare is proposing a $112 million 50-bed hospital in the Carnes Crossroads subdivision in Goose Creek.
Berkeley is the largest county in South Carolina without an acute-care hospital.
Trident, which filed for its state approvals first, argued that the Roper facility would be only a short drive from Trident's existing hospital off U.S. Highway 78 in North Charleston. Roper countered that Moncks Corner wasn't close enough to the growing patient base it hopes to serve in the Goose Creek area.
Their arguments left state health officials to ponder at least two key questions: Should a new hospital be built where residential growth is projected to explode in coming years, even if existing medical services are available nearby? Or should it be built in a place that would benefit residents of smaller, rural communities?
Both medical providers traveled to Columbia to press their case before the state Department of Health and Environmental Control, which will decide by June 27 if either proposal can move forward.
Whether Berkeley County can support two acute-care hospitals is an open question. Trident consultant
Richard Baehr said it cannot. Roper disagreed.
"It would be a mistake to approve two 50-bed hospitals," Baehr said. "If two were approved, that would create a situation where neither hospital could reach their utilization goals."
Trident and its supporters argued that an expansion of the Moncks Corner medical center would benefit small towns such as Bonneau, Jamestown and St. Stephen, whose residents now have to drive more than 40 minutes for full-service hospital care. Even Roper's proposed facility would require a long commute, they said.
St. Stephen Mayor Robert Hoffman asked why not build the hospital "20 minutes down the road to Moncks Corner?"
"That would cut the time from St. Stephen, Bonneau and Jamestown in half," Hoffman said.
Douglas Bowling, vice president of system development for Roper St. Francis, said the northern part of Berkeley County isn't growing fast enough. He said the population in a seven-mile radius around the Goose Creek hospital site is expected to grow five times faster than the corresponding area around Trident's site.
Roper's hospital would be among several huge but largely undeveloped subdivisions, including The Parks at Berkeley, Carnes Crossroads and Cane Bay. Dennis Harmon, Goose Creek's city administrator, spoke in favor of Roper's plan in a video.
"As we address current and future growth in our community, it's important that we locate health care services where they will serve the greatest number of people and do the most good," Harmon said.
Todd Gallati, president of HCA Corp.-owned Trident Health System, called the decision by Roper St. Francis to build at Carnes Crossroads a competitive, "predatory move" that would feed off his company's existing customer base.
"The only way a hospital can survive in that location is to attract patients already being served by Trident Medical," he said.
Bowling said Roper St. Francis already has a loyal pool of patients who live in that area. During his presentation, he read letters from some of the nearly 3,900 Berkeley County residents who he said opted to travel to a Roper facility last year for inpatient services rather than go to a Trident-run facility.
Bowling added that the distance between Trident's hospital in North Charleston and Roper's proposed site is similar to the distance between existing hospitals in Columbia and in the Charleston area.
He said "another facility is needed when you talk about" the amount of industry and development in lower Berkeley County.
DHEC regulates the development of new hospitals and services to ensure that standards of care are not compromised by overbuilding.
The arguments that the agency heard Thursday were similar to those that arose when East Cooper Regional Medical Center and Roper unveiled plans for competing hospitals in Mount Pleasant in 2005. DHEC ultimately approved both proposals.