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Hospital chief details need for new facility

August 27, 2003|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

Washington County Health System President and CEO James Hamill made his first public pitch Tuesday for building a new $165 million hospital capable of caring for everyone from premature babies to heart patients.

About 200 people came out to see drawings and a model of the proposed building and to hear Hamill explain why the community needs a new regional hospital to replace its Antietam Street complex in Hagerstown.

The meeting was held near the proposed site of the hospital at Robinwood Medical Campus, which specializes in outpatient services.

While it would cost less initially to renovate the downtown hospital, portions of which date to 1934, it would be less expensive in the long run to build a new structure that uses space more efficiently, Hamill said.

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Lower operating costs of a new building will make up the difference in about eight years, he said.

Advantages to replacing the hospital outweigh the disadvantages, which include having to provide utilities and roads to the area, he said.

The new 475,000-square-foot hospital will have a neonatal unit to take care of babies born prematurely and there will be room to expand cardiac services, which may include angioplasty procedures in the future.

Robotics will be used to dispense medicine, cutting down on the chance of errors, and vital signs will be recorded directly into medical records, eliminating the need for transcription, he said.

The emergency room will double in size. Right now, it's handling 65,000 patients a year in a space designed for 45,000, he said.

The hospital will grow from 254 acute-care beds to 278 beds, all of which will be private rooms, he said.

While the hospital predicts that its proposed configuration will handle demand, there is room to expand by adding a sixth and seventh floor.

Separate hallways for visitors and patients will offer more privacy, he said.

With the design work mostly complete, the hospital is seeking approval for the move from the Maryland Health Care Commission.

The hospital then plans to borrow construction money through the sale of tax-exempt 30-year bonds next spring and open the new hospital in 2007.

Hospital rates will increase to pay for the $11 million annual debt service, but they still will be among the lowest in the state, he said.

Any construction delay will drive up costs, he said.

Audience members were invited to write their questions on note cards, which were read by local television and radio personality Lou Scally.

Many questions were asked about the traffic congestion in the area.

Hamill said the hospital is willing to work with county officials and pay a share of the costs to upgrade the roads.

The hospital is expected to add an extra 500 cars to the roads during rush hour, which is roughly equal to a 500-home subdivision, he said.

When asked about the added time it will take to get patients to a Robinwood-area hospital, Hamill said that's why he preferred a location in Friendship Technology Park off Interstate 70.

But he downplayed the significance of the added 2.4 miles, saying most cities would be envious of such a quick response time.

On the re-use of the existing complex, Hamill said the hospital is interested in helping potential developers make use of the site. If that doesn't happen, the building will be demolished and become green space, he said.

Medical waste incinerator and laundry facilities will remain downtown only if they become part of a larger redevelopment plan, he said.

Some of the questions took a jab at City of Hagerstown officials, who oppose the hospital's move.

One person wrote, "Maybe we should do what they do in California," suggesting a recall of city officials.

Hamill responded with a story about recently meeting former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani at a conference in San Francisco.

He said Giuliani told him he opposes the recall of California Gov. Gray Davis because elected officials need to work through crises.

Hamill said he hopes to meet with Hagerstown officials to better understand their concerns.

"We've gone way down the road, only to hear this at the eleventh hour," he said.

Two hospital security guards were stationed at the doors, but their services were not needed to deal with the orderly crowd.

Afterward, Hamill received a round of applause. Several audience members interviewed said that they were in favor of the plan.

"The old hospital's done a good job, but it's kind of an antique now, really," said Hugh Everline, 82, of Hagerstown.

Linda Baker, 54, of Hagerstown, said as she gets older, she will be in greater need of the hospital's services and she doesn't want to have to drive to the Baltimore-Washington area.

"You've got to take care of people," she said.

Alys Kerns, 63, of Hagerstown, said she hopes city officials drop their opposition to the hospital move.

"We've been in favor of the move to Robinwood to begin with. (Hamill) just confirmed all our good thoughts," she said.

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