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By JENNIFER GOLDBLATT
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 11, 2001
With the number of emergency room visits shooting off the charts, three hospitals that serve Pasco County have decided they need to expand their ERs.
This summer, North Bay Hospital in New Port Richey plans to begin a $500,000 expansion, its second in two years. At Community Hospital of New Port Richey and Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital in Tarpon Springs, expansions are on the horizon, though specific plans haven't been put on the drawing board yet.
East Pasco Medical Center nearly doubled the size of its emergency room in February, after seeing the number of patients increase 10 percent to 15 percent annually in recent years.
Hospital officials attribute the surge in visits to increases in population and in the number of people using the emergency room for primary care because they lack health insurance. Federal law guarantees access to emergency care at all hospital ERs for all people, regardless of the ability to pay. About 25 percent of all patients at the ER do not have insurance, according to the Florida Hospital Association, or FHA.
Emergency rooms at Florida hospitals saw 6-million people last year, up from 5.5-million in 1999, according to the FHA. Many hospitals are modernizing their emergency rooms to separate traumas from non-critical cases so that they can treat the traumas more efficiently. Hospitals in Florida get about 48 percent of their admissions from the ER; for some Pasco hospitals, it's more than 60 percent.
Last year, Community Hospital saw a 7 percent increase in ER visits to 35,000. Ernie Meier, the hospital's chief executive, said he expects the number to jump to 40,000 this year.
"We're really pushing our limits here," said Meier, whose 414-bed hospital is owned by HCA -- The Healthcare Co.
Meier attributes much of the increased demand to the opening of Community Hospital's new maternity and pediatric units, and the recent closing of those units at North Bay. Community treated 3,283 patients under the age of 18 last year, up from 2,319 in 1999.
Community's potential $4-million ER expansion is still in very early planning stages. If it were to occur, construction wouldn't begin for another two to three years. So far, discussions have centered around renovating the current 20,000-square-foot, 26-bed emergency room facility, adding three to five treatment bays and 10,000 square feet.
"This is the front door. It's where (the patients) start, and so it's got to work," Meier said.
Last year, North Bay, owned by Morton Plant Mease Healthcare Inc., wrapped up a $1.2-million renovation that doubled the number of ER treatment bays to 10. But with an 18 percent increase in visits last year to 19,000, and another 6 percent increase expected in 2001, William Jennings, the hospital's chief operating officer, said the hospital now needs five more beds.
At Helen Ellis Memorial Hospital, which gets about 40 percent of its admissions from southwest Pasco, ER expansion plans also are in the works, though no details have been hammered out. After years of financial trouble, Helen Ellis linked up with Tampa-based University Community Hospital Inc. in August.
The expansion plans raise the question of possible overbuilding. Hospitals do not need to apply for state "certificates of need" to expand their ERs, as they must if they are expanding other units. But hospital officials say they're just meeting pent-up demand.
Carol Gormley, director of government affairs for the Florida Hospital Association, agrees, and says that ER expansions are a relatively low-risk investment.
"I certainly don't think that there's a market limit on the expansions of emergency departments," she said. Unlike other kinds of capital improvements, if hospitals overbuild their ERs, they can convert the space for other uses fairly easily, she added.