A turf war between hospital systems in Berkeley County has held up the Medical University of South Carolina's plans to build a new hospital as competitors argue the project would put them in financial jeopardy.
Roper St. Francis and Trident Health say MUSC's plans to build off Nexton Parkway interferes with their own plans to expand. Their objections have led to a trial at the Administrative Law Court in Columbia, scheduled to begin Nov. 4.
It has been nearly two years since MUSC's Board of Trustees first voted to go ahead with the community hospital in December 2017. The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control gave the plans a nod about six months later.
But Roper St. Francis and Trident Health took the issue to court, arguing the health department never should have given its approval.
Both hospital groups already had obtained permission to build smaller, 50-bed hospitals in Berkeley County, and both worried that an MUSC hospital would threaten the financial viability of their new facilities.
Sheila Champlin, spokeswoman for MUSC, said the area needs more beds.
"We are operating at 100 percent capacity with many patients who want to come to MUSC providers having to wait or be turned away," she said. "This new hospital will allow MUSC to provide care in a fast-growing community."
MUSC is ready to proceed with the project as soon as the case is resolved, Champlin said.
Bret Johnson, chief financial officer of Roper St. Francis, wrote in an affidavit that MUSC's proposed community hospital would pull patients away from the nonprofit's newly opened hospital close to the Carnes Crossroads development in Goose Creek.
Johnson said the MUSC hospital would be "oversized and unnecessary" and would "seriously threaten the financial viability" of the Roper Berkeley hospital.
MUSC purchased its site in October 2018 for $8.2 million. A court order keeps it from moving forward on designing the new hospital, which is projected to take a year.
Johnson also jabbed at MUSC's finances, arguing the publicly supported hospital system has overextended itself in the projects to which it has already committed.
"A debt load of this magnitude, well over $1 billion, may exceed a sustainable level, especially given the declining profitability MUHA has experienced in recent years," Johnson wrote.
M. Elizabeth Crum, an attorney for MUSC, assured the judge, Ralph King Anderson III, the hospital's debts "are not obligations or debts of the state," according to court transcripts. She also said MUSC well exceeds the benchmarks to be able to secure funding for the project.
"The taxpayers are not at risk," she said.
MUSC attorneys told the judge the system wants to adopt a "hub-and-spoke" model, where it would build new hospitals to feed into its downtown campus.
The judge decided in August that MUSC couldn't move forward on the hospital until a hearing is held.
Since filing the lawsuit, Roper St. Francis opened its new hospital in Berkeley County. MUSC's hospital would be built just a few miles away in the Nexton development. Trident Health also broke ground in late September on a new freestanding emergency department close to the entrance to Nexton, which will open next summer.
Roper St. Francis spokesman Andy Lyons said, about a week after the hospital's opening, the emergency department was seeing on average 55 patients per day — 13 more than expected.