BANGOR, Maine — For health care consumers in the northern half of Maine, an update on plans to improve facilities at Bangor’s Eastern Maine Medical Center is mixed. On the plus side, plans approved in 2008 for a major expansion and modernization of the hospital’s State Street campus are moving forward. Not so welcome, perhaps, is the news that it could be years before the project actually breaks ground.
The plan for a $250 million expansion at EMMC has had the state’s go-ahead since 2008 and was projected to be completed by 2012, but there has been no outward sign of the anticipated new eight-story tower featuring private inpatient rooms, an advanced cardiac diagnostic and treatment center and modern operating room suites. The tower is planned to occupy the footprint currently filled by the Stetson building, a low structure near the main hospital entrance that houses a pharmacy.
On Wednesday, EMMC officials said the project is still moving forward, albeit slowly, and recently has passed a regulatory hurdle to keep it on track. Late last week, the state’s certificate of need office endorsed the hospital planners’ definition of “commencement” — a milestone indicating the institution’s financial and operational commitment. Still, the hospital cannot offer any clear timeline for actual site preparation, groundbreaking and construction.
“We are still refining what this project will look like,” said Helen McKinnon, vice president of support services. Given the current state of the economy, changes in state and federal health care funding and the unfurling national health care reform, she said Wednesday, “we have to be very cognizant of what we can afford.”
The EMMC board must approve the new plan when it is made final, but even then, McKinnon said, “we don’t know when the shovels will go into the ground.”
The state’s commencement checklist includes a number of elements, including continued pre-development planning, site-clearing, foundation work and overall spending. Terms of commencement must be accomplished within one year of the initial state approval, unless an extension is granted. EMMC last fall requested and received a one-year extension, which expired Oct. 1.
On Friday, Nov. 5, the CON office sent a letter indicating the terms of commencement have been satisfied. Although groundbreaking and construction have not yet started, McKinnon said, planning continues and spending on the project already has exceeded the state’s requirement that 50 percent of anticipated first-year operational costs of the new facility be committed.
So far, McKinnon said, EMMC has spent about $12 million for architectural and engineering services, financial analyses and other pre-development work. Adjusting the plan over the past year to reflect both conditions of the state’s initial approval and subsequent changes in the state and national economy have cost more money, she said.
Among the changes in the new plan, McKinnon said, is a downsizing of the new tower from eight stories to seven. Gone is the plan to leave the first two stories as finished but undeveloped “shell space” for future growth; now, the first two floors will be dedicated to cardiac services for both inpatients and outpatients. The third floor will feature new surgical suites to replace the current 30-year-old suites, connecting to existing outpatient surgical areas in the Kagan building.
The fourth floor of the tower will house mechanical and utility space, McKinnon said, and the top three floors will be dedicated to private inpatient rooms. The number of inpatient beds will increase from 351 to 411.
Despite the uncertain economic climate, McKinnon said the hospital remains committed to expanding and improving its facilities. The last major construction at the State Street campus, the construction of the Grant tower, took place 40 years ago, she noted.
“We are investing in the next 50 to 80 years,” she said. “We are going to move very slowly and carefully.”
Hospital spokeswoman Jill McDonald said Wednesday it is important to separate the discussion of the hospital’s expansion from the issue of currently stalemated negotiations with the 833 unionized nurses who work there. Stalled contract talks led the nurses this week to schedule a strike on Nov. 22; the hospital said it plans to bring in replacement nurses.
While some critics argue EMMC should spend less on bricks-and-mortar improvements and more on hiring and compensating its employees, McDonald said both are important.
Without modern, safe areas for delivering patient care, she said, EMMC’s patients, doctors and nurses will go elsewhere “and the jobs will dry up.”
Nurses are among the most ardent advocates for improved clinical areas, she noted, and among those who will benefit the most from the ambitious expansion project.