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Governor signs bill in Gainesville designating hospitals by level of cardiac care
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Louis Smith, president of the Northeast Medical Center in Gainesville, speaks during an event Tuesday at NGMC. During the event, Gov. Nathan Deal signed a bill designating three levels of cardiac care, which is intended to help patients and emergency responders better understand where to transport those who have had a heart attack. - photo by Erin O. Smith/The Times

GAINESVILLE -- Gov. Nathan Deal traveled to Gainesville Tuesday to sign a bill designating three levels of cardiac care, which officials said will help patients and emergency responders better understand where to transport those who have had a heart attack.

“Even without this legislation, this has been the No. 1 heart center in the state of Georgia,” Deal told the crowd before signing Senate Bill 102 into law at Northeast Georgia Medical Center Gainesville’s Walters Auditorium. “We believe this is an appropriate piece of legislation, one that hopefully will give the public a better understanding of where the really top quality hospitals are located.”

The bill is similar to designations created previously for strokes and trauma centers. It gives each hospital that provides cardiac care one of three levels, identifying the type of care provided. The Gainesville hospital is a Level 1 center under the law, meaning it can provide all levels of care, including open-heart surgery. Level 2 hospitals can do cardiac catheterizations, and Level 3 facilities are designated to stabilize patients who are having or have had a heart attack. The bill also creates the Office of Cardiac Care in the state Department of Public Health.

Jason Grady, regional STEMI — a medical term for the worst type of heart attack — coordinator at the hospital, said most other surrounding hospitals qualify as Level 3 hospitals under the law. Northeast Georgia Medical Center Braselton will move to a Level 2 facility once it is approved to provide heart catheterizations, according to Grady.

“This is huge,” Grady said. “We’ve already seen that this type of designation has saved lives with trauma, with stroke, with pediatrics and with burns. This is just a natural progression and long overdue.”

State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, credited Gainesville hospital employees with making him aware of the need for the legislation.

“The very best ideas that we get come from people who are closest to the problems,” Miller said. “That is exactly what happened here. Northeast Georgia Health System was instrumental in making this a reality.”

Louis Smith, president of the Gainesville hospital, said the bill signing “gives structure around this important life-saving area.”

“(Cardiac care) is something this institution has been known for and pioneered related to the care of our community,” Smith said. “Now to see a more organized effort about how you organize around and save lives is truly a special moment.”

State Rep. Lee Hawkins, R-Gainesville, said the important part of legislation is that it will save time for patients who need critical care..

“Time is our enemy and, with these leveling systems, we can get the patient to the right hospital in the amount of time that makes a big difference,” he said.

State Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, said her experience as a cardiac care nurse made her a supporter of the bill.

“I have been in medicine my whole life. And I understand the importance of cardiac care, and I understand that minutes matter,” she said.

After the bill signing, Smith presented the governor with a voice-activated defibrillator as a gift from the hospital.