Like it or not, hospital emergency rooms all over the country are straining to meet escalating demand. Hancock County is among the hardest hit. So Ellsworth’s Maine Coast Memorial Hospital is wisely raising $10 million to build a new ER building.
Patients stream into emergency rooms in increasing numbers because so many lack insurance, because there are not nearly enough primary care physicians and because our outmoded and rickety health system cannot handle the ever-increasing demand for health care. Sprains and bruises and nose-bleeds take up so much attention that more serious emergencies sometimes have to wait.
A 1986 law sometimes known as the patient anti-dumping law requires every emergency department to provide minimal care to all comers, regardless of their ability to pay.
Use of the Ellsworth hospital’s emergency department has increased by 25 percent in 10 years and it has been overcapacity since 1994. It was built to serve a maximum of 12,000 patients a year. It now sees more than 18,000.
An aging population costs more in health care, and Maine’s median age is the highest in the nation, at 41.6 years. Mainers 65 or older were 15 percent of the population in 2008 and are forecast at 25 percent by 2025.
In Hancock County, 25 percent are already 65 or older, and the figure is 30 percent for Washington County. Sixteen percent in Hancock County and 13.2 percent in Washington County were uninsured in 2005.
Maine Coast Memorial Hospital is now the only acute-care facility in its Down East service area, meaning that a physician must be present at all times. So the Ellsworth hospital is increasingly the choice for urgent care.
Ellsworth, as perhaps a worst case in a mounting national crisis, now has a cramped ER with a crowded waiting room, a distant sterilization room with no space for storage, treatment rooms too small for computer carts enter to take advantage of advanced digitalization of records, and the nearest LifeFlight helicopter landing place at the high school athletic field. The hospital sometimes must resort to “elopement” — sending registered patients away until they can be treated.
The new center will have 3½ times the current space for emergency services. It will have a spacious waiting room to provide privacy for patients and their families, trauma rooms with a specialized X-ray machine and other new equipment for prompt treatment, two central nursing stations sur-rounded by 13 examination and treatment rooms, including several for specific emergency care such as obstetrics and mental health, and an adjacent helicopter pad. A 2,500-square-foot sterile processing center will service the emergency department and the entire hospital.
The new center is to be financed by a $5 million capital campaign that began last October plus $5 million in state bonds.
With health care reform, the situation may have eased 10 years from now, but right now this project is a promising solution to a Down East emergency-care emergency.