Fairfield officials say ER sale was flawed; call for review by DHEC

WINNSBORO  – Following Prisma Health’s surprise announcement last week that it had signed a deal to acquire Providence Health – Fairfield Emergency Room (ER) along with three other hospitals, Fairfield County officials have requested the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC), which signed off on the deal, to pump the brakes on the proposed purchase agreement.

The county is joined by requests from three other governments of Camden (KershawHealth), Columbia (Providence Hospital) and Richland County (Providence Northeast) along with Lexington County.

In a letter dated March 13, Fairfield County, through its attorneys, Bruner, Powell, Wall and Mullins, LLC, formally requested DHEC to conduct a final review of the decision that allowed Prisma Health to acquire the four health care facilities, documents obtained by The Voice state.

Fairfield County and (the former) Fairfield Memorial Hospital are questioning the legality of the DHEC staff’s approval of an amended Certificate of Public Advantage (COPA) that cemented the deal between Prisma and Providence Health, according to the request.

 “Grounds for this request,” the letter states, “are that DHEC’s proposed decision regarding the amendments to the Prisma Health COPA is in error as a matter of law and unsupported factually in numerous respects.”

Among other things, the letter states that DHEC “failed to publish notice of receipt of the request in the State Register and failed to publish notice in a newspaper of general circulation that the application was complete and otherwise provide notice to affected persons of the rights to request a public hearing. Indeed, Fairfield County and Fairfield Memorial Hospital were not made aware of the proposed transaction or the efforts to modify the COPA until the staff decision was issued on February 28 modifying the COPA and Prisma published its press release announcing the agreement to acquire the assets of Kershaw Health and Providence Health [hospitals].

“To this date, Fairfield County is not privy to the details of the proposed transaction and the information contained in DHEC’s file that would reflect the potential benefits or disadvantages to the citizens of Fairfield County,” the letter states.

“Upon review of the entire DHEC file,” the letter states, “…the [DHEC] Board should overturn the staff decision and remand the matter to the DHEC staff for a full, open and fair review…to include a directive for compliance with the public notice requirements and opportunity for public comment and hearing as provided by statute.”

Fairfield County has raised financial considerations as well.

Fairfield and Providence have a deal in which the county agreed to provide $1 million a year for 10 years to Providence Health to be used solely for the use and operation of the Providence Health Fairfield ER.

Fairfield County Administrator Jason Taylor said the county had expected to receive about $250,000 in property taxes a year from Providence, revenue that would likely disappear now since, he said, county officials have been told that Prisma operates as a non-profit.

When contacted Monday afternoon about Fairfield’s request for a review, DHEC spokeswoman Laura Renwick said via email that she was “focused on COVID-19,” and deferred comment to another spokesperson who wasn’t made available as of press time.

Prisma says the acquisition will provide the Greenville-based health provider with “new opportunities to advance the delivery of accessible high-quality care in communities across the regions it serves,” a news release said.

“Providence and KershawHealth are known to share our commitment to improving patient experiences, clinical quality and access to care,” Mark O’Halla, president and chief executive officer of Prisma, said in the release. “We look forward to continuing our mutual goal of enhancing the health of our communities.”

Taylor said the Prisma deal injects uncertainty into residents’ future access to healthcare, and injecting uncertainty during a pandemic is a prescription for disaster, he said.

“Any uncertainty in healthcare lately is not a welcome development,” Taylor said. “With the coronavirus, we do not need to be uncertain about the status of healthcare in the county.”

Taylor said county officials have a lot of questions that need to be answered.

“That’s why we’re asking for this slowdown,” Taylor said. “Fairfield County and all the impacted communities around us, we need to have certainty that we’re going to have medical coverage for our citizens.

“We should have had the ability to input. We want that and to know how the sale is going to affect us,” Taylor said.

Barbara Ball contributed to this story.