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Health chief addresses move

Q&A --

December 16, 2002

Editor's note: Reporter Andrew Schotz recently interviewed James P. Hamill, president and chief executive officer of Washington County Health System, the parent company of Washington County Hospital. The interview focused on plans to move the hospital from downtown Hagerstown to Robinwood Drive. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.




Q: Why does the hospital need to move?

A: The hospital spends about $10 million a year upgrading itself. There are about 18,000 patients admitted. We're up to about 65,000 patients in our emergency room. That doesn't take into account all of the outpatient services. There is a fair amount of wear and tear on the facility and a constant need to adapt to new technology.

We need to expand departments, surgery, emergency room, radiology. Our nursing units are very inefficient - the old, long, narrow corridors. In a time when there's a shortage of staff, you want to make the building as efficient as possible.

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There's been changes to building codes, in terms of air handling, in terms of structural.

There's some things done in the state regarding earthquake strengthening. You have to bring the entire facility up to building codes, fire safety codes.

In addition, we're thinking about security. We're not just talking about terrorism. We're talking about the building (being) as secure as possible, you know, with some of the events of the recent years. All those factors go into making a decision.

Q: When did the hospital decide it wanted to move?

A: I joined the organization back in September of 2000 and there were plans, at that point, to look at a series of renovations. We needed a comprehensive plan.

In the fall of 2000, we started to do that assessment. From the fall of 2000 through the summer of 2001, we developed three scenarios for renovation, all of which had positive things and all of which had some real limitations.

In the summer of 2001, we thought - and the board directed - that we explore a replacement option. By November of 2001, we had a series of scenarios for replacement, as well as renovation. The board said (to) proceed with developing the scenario for replacement. We announced that last year.

Q: For a lot of people, the hospital choosing Robinwood Drive meant that a new hospital will definitely open there. You say certain things must happen first. What are they?

A: We're finishing the programming of the facility, how big departments need to be, projected volumes, how many beds. That's pretty well completed. The architects are now in the schematic phase.

There are clearly issues around infrastructure the county needs to address, intersections that are currently failing. (We're) sitting down with the county and understanding what needs to be done overall and what would be our fair share.

Now that we're getting the schematics, construction managers are starting to give us better estimates of actual costs. The equipment planners are helping (with) what the costs of equipment, information systems and the like would be.

Soon, we'll be talking to the state about a certificate of need. A certificate of need is the state approval process for spending this kind of money. Also, because Maryland is a rate-regulated state, (the project) will require a comfort order - which comes from the Health Services Cost Review Commission - which will allow us to have in rates the money necessary to pay for the hospital.

Q: What could prevent the hospital from moving?

A: Every one of those things could prevent it - zoning, regulatory approvals, cost. We think it is (affordable) at this point, but market conditions could change.

Q: When will you know?

A: If everything continues on track, we should have a clear understanding in the late winter. We'll probably be filing the certificate of need (then). That's a 60- to 90-day process. The construction managers are bringing us updated numbers. Our financial advisers are working with us.

We will be going, probably in the spring, to New York to talk to Standard & Poors and Moody's about our creditworthiness. We'll test the market sometime late summer, early fall. We'll make a recommendation to the board next fall. That would be the final point at which to recommend going forward with the project.

Q: Is there a price estimate now? We have heard $150 million.

A: The numbers have been quoted from $150 million to $250 million. We've stayed away from identifying an actual cost of the project because there's a lot more involved than just actual construction. I would say if the project gets substantially above $160 million to $170 million, it's not affordable for us.

Q: Robinwood Drive is a high-traffic area now. Is that a factor?

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