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Hospitals scrambling to meet growing demand

Expansions are in the works, but officials wonder whether the additions will be sufficient by the time they open.

By TERESA BURNEY, Times Correspondent
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 16, 2003

Hernando County's hospital administrators have finally put away their helmets and swords and donned hard hats.

Now that they have stopped fighting each other's expansions, the operators of Oak Hill Hospital and Brooksville Regional and Spring Hill Regional hospitals are getting on with the construction of several long-planned new buildings and additions.

Every hospital in Hernando County will be in a state of construction for the next few years -- and probably even beyond that -- to meet the needs of a swelling population.

Brooksville Regional Hospital is planning the most dramatic expansion. Its administrators plan to start building a new hospital west of Brooksville in three or four months. The new three-story, 181,000-square-foot hospital will be built at State Road 50 and Lykes-Dublin Road and will replace the 1960s vintage, 117,000-square-foot building 3 miles to the east in Brooksville.

Oak Hill officials had objected to the plans, but an administrative law judge ruled in December that the state should approve the Brooksville Regional move. Oak Hill said it would not appeal further.

The new hospital will have the same 91-bed capacity as the current hospital, but perhaps not for long. Tom Barb, chief executive of Brooksville Regional and Spring Hill Regional hospitals, says it is likely the new building will be too small by the time it opens in two years.

"I think we are going to have a shortage of beds in Hernando then," Barb said.

Expansion should be no problem. Health Management Associates of Naples, which manages Brooksville Regional and Spring Hill Regional for the county, which owns them, is making the building sturdy enough to handle another two floors, and it will be designed to grow outward as well, Barb said.

Last year, Brooksville Regional also financed the start of a new medical clinic on the east side of the county and paid for a second ambulance to serve residents in that area. Those additions were made because county commissioners were concerned that moving the hospital west of Brooksville would diminish service to residents on the county's east side. Oak Hill Hospital officials, who opposed the hospital's move east, had sparked those worries during debates on the move.

Oak Hill has its own share of construction happening. The hospital is in the middle of a $10.5-million emergency room expansion that will triple the size of its emergency department. The expansion will include more space dedicated for emergency room patients who are less seriously injured. It will also include its own pharmacy and radiology departments so prescriptions and X-rays of emergency injuries can be completed and returned faster, said Jaime Wesolowski, Oak Hill's chief executive officer.

Before that addition is finished, Oak Hill plans to start construction on a facility to accommodate an adult open-heart surgery program that was opposed by Brooksville Regional Hospital officials.

Then, when those two projects are completed, it is likely that Oak Hill will be looking to add some more room for beds, too, said Wesolowski.

Oak Hill, which was built 18 years ago with 100 beds, now has 204. But that has not been enough lately.

"We have had days when we had 260" patients, Wesolowski said. The hospital has been so busy that it decided last fall to stop delivering babies.

"We would have been closed twice this (winter) season if we hadn't done that," Wesolowski said recently.

When Oak Hill stopped delivering babies, Spring Hill Regional Hospital found its obstetrical areas strained at the seams.

To accommodate all of the pregnant women laboring in close quarters, Spring Hill Regional was forced to step up the completion of its obstetrical expansion, Barb said.

The 10,000-square-foot addition, which increased the number of delivery and recovery suites from eight to 14, opened in early January rather than spring as was planned.

The expansion was designed to accommodate a new Level 2 neonatal intensive care nursery, equipped to care for all but the most critically ill newborns. Although the building is finished, premature babies will not able to stay there until April or May, when the hospital hires a neonatologist who specializes in the care of early babies.

"We hadn't planned to be open this early," Barb said.

Now, about 250 high-risk newborns are leaving the county for care each year. The new nursery should allow 95 percent of them to stay, said Barb.

"It's rough for mothers and infants to bond when they are 40, 50, or 60 miles away," he said.

Now that Oak Hill has stopped delivering babies, Barb is wondering whether the new addition will be big enough to handle the extra infants. The hospital was already delivering about 1,300 well babies a year. The neonatal unit will add more than 200 to that number. Then there's the overflow from Oak Hill to contend with.

Spring Hill Regional is also about to finish an emergency room expansion that will double that department's space.

And construction of a new unit that will add 28 beds to the 95-bed hospital is scheduled to start in the first part of this year.

"Spring Hill will be under construction for the next five years," Barb said.

Some other Hernando patients will also be able to remain in the county rather than leave for care when the HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital of Spring Hill is finished in late March.

The 60-bed hospital at 12440 Cortez Blvd. in Spring Hill is the first licensed rehabilitation hospital in the county, said Mario A. Mudano, the hospital's chief executive officer. Local nursing homes have typically handled in-patient rehabilitation in the county. Other patients left for such services.

The 57,000-square-foot hospital will provide patients with all forms of physical rehabilitation. There will be an area fitted like an apartment to help people relearn the activities of daily living, a therapy pool and gym, as well as a recreational therapist who can help patients get back their golf swing, said Mudano.

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