Local news

Sacred Heart plans expansion

THURSDAY, SEPT. 18, 2008

Sacred Heart Medical Center plans to spend $175 million during the next five years on an expansion project that will add 173 patient beds and reshape the hospital campus.

The building plans could buoy the local construction industry as the hospital becomes the largest in the state with 796 licensed beds, according to tallies from the Washington State Hospital Association.

Sacred Heart has been bustling with record numbers of patients. Its emergency room is on pace to treat 76,000 patients this year; 45,000 were seen four years ago.

The average daily patient count is 530. That’s an 85 percent occupancy rate that has forced the hospital to divert patients to other medical centers.

Mike Wilson, president of the hospital, said expansion plans were hatched 17 months ago to ensure Sacred Heart could meet the needs of patients from a growing base of referring physicians.

On one August day the hospital had 552 patients and 61 scheduled surgeries – busy but hardly unusual lately.

“We are essentially full,” said Dr. Andrew Agwunobi, chief executive of Providence Health Care, which oversees Sacred Heart.

Cranes and workers will add four floors to Sacred Heart’s west wing beginning in mid-2009, Wilson said. The emergency department will extend outward and be topped by two additional floors of patient beds and services.

A 100,000-square-foot medical office building and cancer center is being designed, although Wilson said a building site has not been chosen. Three are under consideration. Not part of the plan: another attempt to acquire “Mary’s House,” a classic Spokane home that sits defiantly amid Sacred Heart buildings and parking lots.

The expansion will surpass the hospital’s most recent ambitious project, the 2004 opening of its $100 million West Tower, where new surgery suites, childbirth rooms and the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit are located, Agwunobi said, adding that the expansion should help the hospital meet the needs of Eastern Washington for the next 15 years.

The hospital has filed a letter of intent with the Washington State Department of Health’s Certificate of Need program.

The 173 new beds will include 22 for intensive care patients, 21 for neonatal intensive care, and others for general surgery, cardiac and other departments.

During the expansion, Sacred Heart will spend another $150 million on routine equipment and technology upgrades, Wilson said, bringing Sacred Heart’s investment to $325 million.

The construction is expected to be financed, at least in part, through the sale of tax-exempt bonds. Sacred Heart’s 2005 merger with the larger Providence Health & Services, based in Seattle, gives the medical center added financial clout that helps it negotiate with insurers, purchase technology and supplies, and attract lenders for construction projects.

Sacred Heart’s plans were met with skepticism by Empire Health Services officials, who were stung last week when Providence filed an 11th-hour lawsuit that could threaten the sale of struggling Deaconess Medical Center to Community Health Systems Inc.

That $156 million purchase has been cast as the last hope for fixing Deaconess’ financial problems – and keeping two strong hospital systems in Spokane.

Empire board Chairman Ron McKay offered this assessment: “Here they go, filing this complaint against us and interfering with us, and then at the same time they try to increase the number of beds they can have.”

“I’m sitting here thinking, ‘This is a huge not-for-profit corporation behaving badly,’ ” he said. “Certainly they are not behaving in a way that is in the best interests of the community. Doctors and patients have said they want choice.”

Agwunobi said Sacred Heart’s expansion plans are outside the framework of the dispute with Empire, which center on how the two hospital systems can resolve fears that their business collaboration through Inland Northwest Health Services could be jeopardized by the sale of Empire to for-profit hospital chain Community Health. The joint business venture provides a range of services, including air ambulance, a rehabilitation hospital, and electronic medical records technology.

“We take a very long-term view of this community,” Agwunobi said. “We have been here for 100 years and always focus on the mission, not the short-term market dynamics.”

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