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City hires new parking data collection firm after first company fails to deliver on promises

The company Rome hired to analyze downtown parking data oversold its capabilities, leaving city staff to scramble to find another company that could deliver the information needed.

City Commissioners learned during their annual planning retreat Thursday that a new company will take over in March.

Purchasing Director Becky Smyth, recently promoted from parking services manager, was able to provide the commission with comparisons of the number of parking citations written and the annual revenue between 2018 and 2019.

However, she did not have the more detailed information the city had hoped to have by now to help it better plan for the future.

“I don’t want to be in the parking business, but we have a vibrant downtown and want to keep it that way,” City Manager Sammy Rich said in the Courtyard Rome Riverwalk meeting room. “What we don’t want to do is regulate ourselves into becoming a ghost town.”

The city has been wrangling with the best way to manage downtown parking for years.

Leaders knew they didn’t want to resort to putting in parking meters on Broad Street — but they want to be able to limit the amount of time people park downtown for the sake of businesses that rely on high parking space turnover.

Smyth explained that four studies were conducted over the last 10 years. A License Plate Reader system was instituted in 2019 that enabled authorities to determine how long a vehicle was parked in one space.

Currently, drivers are permitted to park for free for three hours between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Since the LPR system went into effect, the number of citations has gone from 1,588 in 2018 to 4,119 in 2019 and revenue increased from $29,660 to $60,521, Smyth pointed out.

However, officials were also hoping to gain information about who is parking downtown, how long they are parking, who the frequent violators are, what the busiest times of day are and whether people are shifting into the parking decks.

Since the company the city contracted with has not been able to provide that information, staff has been forced to look to AIMS Parking Management Software to get the job done, beginning in March.

Assistant City Manager Patrick Eidson said the contract with the first company required a 60-day notice before cutting ties.

Commissioner Wendy Davis said she’s been waiting for more detailed data for the past two months and didn’t appreciate not being told about the data collection issue sooner.

“I kept anticipating we would get the data,” Davis said. “At no point did anyone tell me what the hang-ups were.”

Commissioner Jamie Doss said that even once they get the parking data, they need to be careful about making any sudden changes.

“If you ever want to take a trip to the moon,” he said, “post about downtown parking on Facebook and you’re on the way.”

Another huge logistics facility planned for Adairsville

The growth in neighboring Adairsville is beginning to accelerate as fast as contractors can pour concrete walls.

Cartersville-Bartow County Economic Development Director Melinda Lemmon said community leaders “may need a seat belt” when it comes to industrial activity in the coming year.

Panattoni Development is planning a 1.1-million-square-foot warehousing project on 74 acres off Ga. 140 between U.S. 41 and I-75. The company filed a Development of Regional Impact statement through the Adairsville community development office.

Panattoni is no stranger to speculative projects in Bartow County and currently has a 209,000-square-foot spec building under construction in Adairsville’s Georgia North Industrial Park directly behind the Godfrey Hurst warehouse.

The project has been labeled as an International Parkway Phase II project. It’s located on the south side of Ga. 140, whereas the existing parkway is on the north side of the highway.

“Panattoni has been a pretty substantial player in Bartow County for several years now,” Lemmon said.

“The first example I can think of is with the Loloi project,” she added. “They were very proactive in getting a DRI on that property, thinking it may be a very proactive move for a speculative project ... there wound up being interest in the market and it turned into a build to suit.”

Loloi is a rug and home furnishings company. It occupies a 647,000-square-foot logistics center off Cass-White Road north of Cartersville.

The DRI statement for the new project estimates the mammoth warehouse will have a value at completion of approximately $55 million and generate close to $700,000 in new tax revenue annually.

Adairsville Community Development Director Richard Osborne said consultants for Panattoni have submitted traffic analysis studies to both the Georgia Department of Transportation and the Northwest Georgia Regional Commission with respect to the potential impact of the project on traffic is the community.

It is not clear at this point if Panattoni will seek a tax abatement as part of the development.

There have been several other speculative projects constructed in Bartow County over the last decade. Two recent projects stand out.

One of those is a mammoth, more than 700,000-square-foot building development by Ashley Capital. It’s in the Georgia North Industrial park less than half a mile from the site of the new Panattoni DRI.

Ashley has also graded property adjacent to that building for what it says could be another million-square-foot warehousing or logistics project.

The whole speed-to-market and just-in-time concept for delivery of materials is prompting the expansion of large distribution, or logistics, facilities.

“The supply chain wants to be closer to both manufacturers and consumers,” Lemmon said.

Northwest Georgia sits in the sweet spot for that type of facility, she said, and the I-75 corridor through Bartow County may be the heart of the sweet spot.

The significance of warehousing and logistics operations can be seen in a new degree program in logistics that is now offered at Georgia Highlands College.

Emma Hunnicutt, a fifth-grader at Model Elementary School

Kindred to close Rome hospital

Kindred Hospital in Rome, a long term acute care hospital at 304 Turner McCall Blvd., will be closing this spring.

Kindred Healthcare, LLC, based in Louisville, Kentucky, leases the building from a third-party real estate investment partnership. The Hospital Authority of Floyd County owns the property the building is located on.

Floyd Medical Center contracts with Kindred in some acute care cases. FMC spokesman Dan Bevels confirmed the closing but did not have any specific comment regarding the decision.

Kindred Hospital administrators did not return calls to the Rome News-Tribune on Thursday.

The facility is a 45-bed transitional care hospital that typically serves patients with chronic conditions who require longer stays.

It has a 12-bed Intensive Care Unit, which has traditionally served patients with acute breathing-related illnesses who may need to be hospitalized for three weeks or more at a time. The Rome center opened in 2011.

The closure will affect more than 70 employees. Dr. Brij Singh, an internal medicine specialist who has been in practice for nearly 30 years, serves as medical director for the hospital.

Overall, the hospital system reported annual revenues of approximately $3.2 billion in 2019. It employs approximately 33,000 people across 46 states. The news in Rome comes after several recent closings.

In January, the Houston Chronicle reported Kindred would close four Texas locations, laying off over 500 employees. In February, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported Kindred gave May 21 as the closing date for its Philadelphia location.

PBMs: Power brokers in the prescription drug world

A recent legislative hearing in Atlanta featured a stream of PBM critics.

South Georgia pharmacist Nikki Bryant said PBMs are putting her out of business. Cancer patient Katie Groover said they have “exhausting” bureaucratic processes that “take away patient choice.’’

Dr. Melissa Dillmon, a Rome oncologist, said PBMs often cause delays for patients trying to get the medicines they need.

And Dr. Jean Sumner, dean of Mercer University School of Medicine, accused PBMs of undermining rural health care in Georgia.

While these people and many others in the health care world know what a PBM is, most people don’t have a clue. Yet PBMs — more formally known as pharmacy benefit managers — play a big role in the prescription drug coverage of tens of millions of Americans.

“We’re all going to be hearing a lot more about them,” said state Rep. Eddie Lumsden, R-Armuchee, who chairs the House Insurance Committee that heard a PBM presentation last week.

PBMs are corporate entities that basically serve as middlemen between health insurers or large employers and drugmakers.

While they have their strong defenders among insurers and employers, criticism of PBMs has grown in recent years. Their detractors say they often act against the interests of consumers and some sectors of the health care economy.

Government scrutiny of these groups is also mounting. Georgia and other states are looking at doing something about how PBMs operate, and so is the U.S. Congress.

These benefit management groups make decisions on which medications will be placed on an insurer’s list of covered drugs, and how much the insurer will pay for them. The pricing often includes rebates paid by the drug manufacturer to the PBM, but that rebate isn’t passed on to the patient.

Bryant, Groover, Dillmon and Sumner — the four critics mentioned earlier — traveled to the state Capitol last month to testify about their problems with PBMs at a hearing of the House Special Committee on Access to Quality Health Care.

The Georgia General Assembly has passed laws to curb PBM practices in recent years.

And once again this session, lawmakers aim to chip away at what Rep. Matt Hatchett, a Dublin Republican, calls the “repugnant’’ practices of these businesses.

Complicated issue

A Monday legislative hearing showed the divisiveness surrounding the issue.

A PBM industry trade group told the Senate Insurance and Labor Committee that a pending Senate anti-PBM bill is “a windfall” for pharmacies and drug companies. A Georgia Pharmacy Association official countered that PBMs pursue “self-dealing on the grandest scale.”

Three large PBMs — CVS Caremark, Express Scripts, and UnitedHealth’s Optum — control about 80% of that market.

There’s little doubt that PBMs are profitable. Recently, giant insurer Anthem reported that its 2019 revenue grew 12.9% year over year, to $103 billion, thanks in part to the successful launch of the insurer’s pharmacy unit, IngenioRx, according to a FierceHealthcare article.

But PBM methods can be opaque, even to health care experts.

The system is “not transparent to employees or beneficiaries,’’ said Bill Custer, a health insurance expert at Georgia State University.

“PBMs have grown in power and profitability, partly because of the share of pharmaceutical (spending) in health care’’ has risen, he said.

A group representing PBMs, the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, says the benefit managers “are the advocates for consumers and health plans in the fight to keep prescription drugs accessible and affordable.”

Custer says that some entity is needed to negotiate for the consumer with pharmaceutical companies. “Someone has to monitor prescriptions so the appropriate drug is prescribed,’’ he adds.

And a health insurance trade organization points to drug manufacturers, not PBMs, as the main culprits on prescription price increases.

“When Big Pharma blocks competition and maintains monopolies on medicines, they can set any price they want. That’s price gouging,’’ said Kristine Grow of America’s Health Insurance Plans.

‘Steering’ angers consumers

The practice of forcing a patient to use a PBM-affiliated pharmacy has angered Georgia lawmakers and spurred many of them to push for action.

Last year, the General Assembly passed legislation that prohibited PBMs from steering patients to affiliated drugstores. Georgia has also banned these entities from pressing pharmacists not to tell customers about drug price information, such as the cost of a cheaper drug.

State Insurance Commissioner John King’s office sent out directives to both insurers and consumers about the new legislation.

The steering issue, though, came up repeatedly at the January hearing.

Dillmon, the Rome oncologist, said many patients are ordered to get prescriptions from a mail-order pharmacy, which often leads to delays in acquiring and using the medicine.

“That’s not good health care,’’ she said.

Groover, fighting multiple myeloma, told lawmakers that she has to wrestle with a PBM’s mail-order operation to get a cancer drug. She described being bounced among customer service representatives.

“It’s exhausting and so time-consuming. Countless patients are going through the same struggles,’’ Groover said.

Small pharmacies take a beatingPharmacy groups say PBMs have especially hurt drugstores that are independently owned, and not part of large chains.

Sumner, whose medical school promotes rural health care, said community pharmacies “are under assault by pharmacy benefit managers.’’

A rural pharmacy is often the frontline health care provider in a rural county, Sumner said. A large chain drugstore could be a 45-minute drive away, and when patients are forced to go there it’s not only inconvenient for them but hurts the local pharmacy’s sustainability, she said.

Newly introduced legislation would strengthen Georgia’s current anti-steering laws, provide more transparency on prescription pricing, and require reimbursements to pharmacies based on a public benchmark. It would also order any drugmaker rebates be passed on to the insurer.

At Monday’s legislative hearing, the lead sponsor of Senate Bill 313, Dean Burke, R-Bainbridge, who’s a physician, said local pharmacies’ complaints about PBMs “are coming fast and furious.”

“Many members of the public are very frustrated with the (PBM) delays and lack of transparency,” Burke said.

Scott Woods of the PBM trade group Pharmaceutical Care Management Association said Burke’s bill contains 21 government mandates and would increase drug costs.

Greg Reybold of the Pharmacy Association, which supports the bill, urged lawmakers to ask the medical providers, pharmacies and patients in their districts about PBM practices. “The sickest patients are being steered to pharmacies owned by PBMs.”

There’s strong talk of upcoming legislation that would require the state to remove drug benefits from the managed care companies that deliver care to most Medicaid patients.

In other words, cutting out the current PBM arrangement.