South Carolina House OKs bill making it easier to build and expand hospitals, buy equipment


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COLUMBIA, South Carolina — The South Carolina House gave key approval Wednesday to a bill that would make it easier to build and expand hospitals and other medical facilities, and would end a state oversight program called the certificate of need entirely at the start of 2018.

The bill, passed 103-1 on Wednesday, would allow existing hospitals, medical centers and nursing homes to add beds within a mile of their facility. It also would allow hospitals to expand services that are already approved under the program and remove the need to seek permission to buy costly equipment like X-ray machines or MRI scanners.

The proposal passed in committee would have ended the certificate of need program in 2020, but House members agreed to move that date up two years. The bill now moves to the Senate.

The proposal emerged from nine months of work by Rep. Murrell Smith and a special committee. The panel was formed after protracted wrangling over the certificate of need, which requires health facilities to get state permission for many kinds of construction and expansion.

The program nearly died when Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed its funding in 2013, but was resurrected a year later when the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that the program couldn't be eliminated unless lawmakers directly voted to kill it.

Smith, R-Sumter, said the bill is a compromise between people who want to end the program entirely and others who said it assures health care providers remain in rural areas.

The regulations have been part of an intense lobbying effort from health care businesses Rep. Jim Merrill said by leaving it alive for more than two years lawmakers gave the lobbyists too much time to twist arms.

What certificate of need "is doing now is helping a few large hospital conglomerations and a lot of lobbyists here and there," said Merrill, R-Charleston. "It is not helping health care in South Carolina."

Senators have not discussed the bill or had any hearings on it this year.

Sen. Harvey Peeler, chairman of the Senate Medical Affairs committee, said he is cautiously optimistic the Senate will take up the issue this year, but he hasn't studied the House's plan.

"I've been anxiously awaiting what they will do," said Peeler, R-Gaffney.

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