May 23, 2018
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New $322M Augusta hospital aims to retain patients, attract providers

By Meg Haskell, BDN Staff

AUGUSTA, Maine — On the outskirts of Augusta on Friday, officials from the MaineGeneral Health system will break ground on a brand new $322 million hospital. The 192-bed facility is scheduled to open in 2014 and will replace three smaller, aging MaineGeneral hospitals in the region — the Thayer and Seton facilities in Waterville and the former Augusta General Hospital in Augusta. The new hospital will feature all private inpatient rooms,10 operating rooms, and the latest in imaging, diagnostic and therapeutic technologies.

The MaineGeneral project is funded through a $35 million donation from the Harold Alfond Foundation and more than $280 million in 30-year bonds sold through the Maine Health and Higher Educational Facilities Authority. It won the approval of the state’s Certificate of Need office in November 2010. It is expected to open in June of 2014.

The objective in building the new hospital, according to MaineGeneral President and CEO Scott Bullock, is to attract health professionals and better serve the health care needs of the region — not to draw patients away from larger medical centers in Bangor, Lewiston and Portland.

“This project will help us compete,” Bullock said in a phone interview on Wednesday, “but we’re not doing this to draw new patients to Augusta.” Rather, he said, the new facility is needed to attract skilled medical providers — physicians, nurses and others — to central Maine, making it easier for existing patients to get the care they need without leaving the area.

“Physicians prefer to have their team members together and to practice in a new, state-of-the-art facility,” Bullock said. Consolidating inpatient care to one hospital also will allow health care providers to be on call less often, he said, reducing stress and enhancing their quality of life.

MaineGeneral Health is the third largest health care system in the state, after MaineHealth in Portland and Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems in Brewer. According to a recent report from the Maine Development Foundation, MaineGeneral has revenues of over $320 million and an annual payroll of about $138 million for over 3,500 employees.

In addition to the three small 1960s-era hospitals that will be replaced by the new facility, the

system includes more than 60 outpatient offices and other services in nine different communities. The latest addition is the Harold Alfond Center for Cancer Care, which opened in 2007 on the same 160-acre site that will be home to the new hospital.

The Maine Development Foundation report found that in 2007, the number of hospital patients seeking care at more modern and better-equipped facilities outside the MaineGeneral service region was equal to 30 percent of the organization’s total share of patient visits that year, representing a loss of over $64 million in community hospital revenues.

The outdated facilities also affect the ability to attract and retain high-caliber medical care providers, according to the report. Currently, the MaineGeneral Health hospitals have a 20 percent physician vacancy rate, anticipated to grow to 38 percent if conditions do not change.

Bullock said that while residents of Waterville and Augusta are used to having inpatient care available right in their communities, the new site is centrally located and easy to get to. Getting to the new hospital, and the cancer care center, will be made easier by the opening of a new access road off Exit 113 on I-95 sometime before the targeted completion of the facility in June 2014, he said. That road, Bullock said, will not only serve the MaineGeneral site but also open access to other relatively undeveloped areas to the west of the Interstate.

At Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems in Brewer, President and CEO Michelle Hood said the MaineHealth project poses little threat to her system’s operations.

Eastern Maine Medical Center, the system’s largest hospital, is one of just two hospitals in the state — the other one is Maine Medical Center in Portland — offering high-level, comprehensive services such as neonatal intensive care, invasive cardiac procedures and advanced orthopedic surgeries. EMMC, along with Maine Medical Center and Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston, also is a designated Level One Trauma Center, prepared to respond to the most severe emergencies. These services will not be available at MaineGeneral’s new hospital, Hood noted, and EMMC will continue to serve the region of Maine from Augusta north.

The 25-bed Inland Hospital in Waterville, the southernmnost affiliate of Brewer-based Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems, will stay open, Hood said.

Hood said long-standing plans to improve facilities at EMMC’s State Street campus are moving forward incrementally. While new surgical suites and a planned tower of private patient rooms may be delayed, other changes are already under way, including revisions to the hospital’s emergency entrance and the utilities infrastructure.

“We are very interested in proceeding with this project, but we want to do it at the right time,” Hood said. The protracted economic downturn, projected changes to Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements, and a new national focus on outpatient care is pressuring all hospitals to reassess their priorities, Hood said.

Bullock said Maine’s health care sector must respond to consumer demand. The state’s aging population, and the pervasive influence of the baby boom generation, will place more pressure on hospitals and other providers in coming years.

“We’re all just going to have to be there to take care of people,” he said. “The demographics are the primary determinant of the health care economy.”

Bullock said MaineGeneral Health’s Thayer facility will be converted for outpatient services, including renal dialysis, physical and occupational therapies and a full-service emergency department. The Seton and Augusta General campuses will be closed.

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