A state board voted unanimously Tuesday to uphold an earlier decision that allows Hilton Head Hospital to build an outpatient center in Bluffton.
The ruling is the latest development in a protracted dispute between the hospital and two competitors -- Beaufort Memorial Hospital and Savannah-based St. Joseph's/Candler Health System -- both of which also operate outpatient centers in Bluffton.
The proposed $18-million center would be built near the intersection of U.S. 278 and Buck Island Road.
The competitors had argued that demand did not exist for a new center and filed letters with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control's board April 13 protesting its decision two weeks earlier to allow the center. Their appeal prompted Tuesday's final review conference.
Kelly Presnell, spokeswoman for Hilton Head Hospital, said the hospital did not expect such opposition when it asked DHEC to approve the center.
During Tuesday's conference, held at DHEC headquarters in Columbia, the parties were given 30 minutes each to present their cases, after which the panel went into closed session to reconsider its previous ruling.
Hilton Head Hospital president and chief executive officer Mark T. O'Neil Jr. hailed the board's decision.
"As we've stated in the project application, this outpatient center in Bluffton will preserve and add jobs to the community, increase accessibility and quality of outpatient services and add to the tax base of the town of Bluffton," he said in a statement.
Beaufort Memorial and St. Joseph's/Candler may still appeal the decision to the S.C. Administrative Law Court. The court hears cases arising from decisions made by state regulatory agencies.
Both can appeal within 30 days from the day the board issues its final written decision -- likely to be released early next week, according to DHEC spokesman Adam Myrick.
Scott Larson, spokesman for St. Joseph's/Candler, said his hospital might not decide whether to appeal until next week.
"We're obviously disappointed with the outcome, but we appreciate the thoughtful questions from the (board) members," he said. "After the board's written decision is filed in a few days, we will review and determine the best course of action for St. Joseph's/Candler."
A spokeswoman for Beaufort Memorial also said it would wait until the written decision is released before deciding whether to appeal.
On Feb. 16, the DHEC board rejected the outpatient center.
Hilton Head Hospital appealed.
On March 29, the board reversed its position, leading the other hospitals to appeal.
The proposed 60,000-square-foot, two-story building would include diagnostic-imaging services, digital mammography, and a variety of adult and pediatric physical, speech and occupational therapies.
The center has the support of Bluffton Mayor Lisa Sulka, who called it "an exciting, major project that will be great for Bluffton."