The announcement by Lehigh Regional Medical Center about shutting down its hospital in Lehigh and relocating it elsewhere in south Lee County, has the town buzzing with questions.
LRMC Joanie Jeannette, CEO and president of Lehigh Regional Medical Center, which is owned by Naples based HMA (Health Management Associates) announced last week that the corporation has submitted file letters of intent with the state, that it wants to build a new hospital and expand its services, but not in Lehigh Acres.
The new hospital, is expected to be built east of I-75, and according to Jeannette in an interview with The Citizen, it would be approximately 15 miles from Lehigh Acres. However, no land has been selected for the new hospital and no decision has been made giving the hospital permission to build elsewhere.
Jeannette maintains that LRMC with its 88-bed facility will be of service to Lehigh, but it would be in an area of growth. That could mean that HMA could select land anywhere from Colonial Blvd, Treeline Blvd., or south to Estero where there is emerging growth. Lehigh Acres has a population of around 90,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Jeannette said the hospital would still maintain a large Emergency Room on the first floor of the facility here and a Patient Care area for Lehigh.
"We would continue to provide needed emergency room, diagnostic and primary care to the citizens of Lehigh Acres," she said.
Jeannette has been the chief executive officer of LRMC for two years and the facility has become a part of the community, sponsoring many events such as the upcoming Lehigh Spring Festival, as its chief supporter.
However, not everyone is happy with a decision to take the hospital out of Lehigh Acres.
Interim Lehigh Acres Fire Chief John Wayne said in relationship to the closure of the 88-bed hospital, "this will amount to the ER becoming nothing more than another 'urgent care' center."
"Any ambulance patient that would likely require an admission to the hospital for their illness and/or injury would be better served at another area hospital in Fort Myers if our crews transported these potential "'admissions,'" he said.
The Lehigh Acres Fire Control and Rescue District operates two ambulances in Lehigh and calls from county sources if more ambulance transports are needed.
Wayne said any ambulance patient that would likely require an admission to the hospital for their illness and/or injury would be better served at another area hospital in Fort Myers. If our crews transported these potential admissions to the remaining ER that would be left at Lehigh, "we would be doing the patient a disservice. In this scenario, the patient would require an ambulance transfer to another facility in Fort Myers better equipped to deliver the appropriate level of medical care."
"As a result, these patients would incur two ambulance bills and multiple medical facility charges as well. This is not an efficient use of the pre-hospital care system in Lee County, nor in the patient's best interest. It is our job to deliver our medically stable patients to the most appropriate receiving facility that is properly staffed and equipped to treat their specified condition on the initial transport.
Wayne further said in his reaction that the Lehigh Acres Fire District ambulances transported 5,476 patients to area hospitals during 2012 and 2,984 or 54 percent of these patients were transported to Lehigh Regional Medical Center.
He said that currently the Lee County Common EMS Treatment Guidelines (the medical protocol that all Lee County ambulance transport services operate under) specifically states that "patients shall be transported to the local hospital of their choice." Now this choice - with LRMC gone - will be taken away from these individuals as they will be forced to seek treatment from another facility other than their local community hospital.
Wayne said the collateral damage that will be created with this potential change in hospital status impacts the fire district in several ways. This will result in more patients being transported to Fort Myers hospitals; therefore, there will be fewer ambulances available in Lehigh Acres for an immediate and timely response.
Typically, transport into Fort Myers adds an additional hour to each unit's available time as a result of the 20 to 30-mile additional round trip. In addition the Fort Myers receiving facilities often have ambulances waiting up to an hour or more to 'off-load' patients.
"This could be potentially add an additional hour, resulting in up to a two-hour delay in our ambulances being able to return to the fire district to handle additional calls for service.
The fire chief also said that as a point of interest, the number of patients that the fire district transported in 2012 was 23.4 percent higher than the previous year and the fire district has transported 301 out of 560 patients to date as of Feb. 4 to Lehigh Regional Medical Center. He said that at this pace, the fire district looks to surpass the 2012 results in all areas once again.
However, Jeannette, speaking for LRMC and its corporate owners, said that in her two years here, the 88-bed facility has never been full.
She said the bid to relocate the hospital sets in motion a plan to build the hospital in a growing portion of Lee County, while continuing to provide a fully accredited and licensed Emergency Department to the Lehigh residents. She said other services will remain in Lehigh including primary care and a full breadth of diagnostic services. Primary Care facilities are doctors' offices.
Dr. Joe Lemmons, who has practiced medicine in Lee County for 15 years and served as the ER director at Lehigh as well as the EMS medical director for all of Lee County, said he was very excited about the establishment of a state of the art replacement hospital in Lee County. I have been serving the Lehigh community for most of my career and I have seen how the market and the needs of this community have changed. I understand that as a result of these changes, it is no longer financially viable to keep the hospital in its current location.
"Relocating the hospital to an area with a larger population while at the same time keeping the services that are needed most in Lehigh Acres is the solution that works for everyone. This is what's best for all residents of Lee County," he said.
Jeannette said that have determined that they need a new plan that is in the best interest of their patients, their caregivers and the community as a whole.
"Part of the plan is to also continue supporting the Lehigh Acres community as a whole.
"Part of our plan is to also continue supporting the Lehigh Acres community through continued services the community needs," she said.
Last year, LRMC provided more than 15 percent of their patient days for Medicaid and charity patients, according to Jeannette.
"The majority of our Emergency Room visits were for people with Medicaid and with no insurance at all, and we plan to continue to provide this important access," she said.
Others in the community upon hearing of the news of the hospital planning to relocate, were surprised in interviews with The Citizen. Some of those comments appear on Page 4 today in the Word on the Street.
Edd Weiner, who heads the Lehigh Acres Community Plan and who is also ahead of the Economic Development Board, said there really is no acceptable place to rebuild the hospital.
"It will cost the Lehigh community over $600,000 in taxes, and remove the second largest employer from the area. The closing is not acceptable. A better management/PR program would be a great step forward here," Weiner said.
LRMC's chief executive Jeannette also said that after careful deliberation and studying of the care this community needs and uses, "we have determined that we need a new plan that is in the best interest of our patients, our caregivers and this community as a whole." She said the corporation would continue to support the community through continued services the community needs.
Jeannette also said that by operating a new Emergency Room and providing a Patient Care Center, it would add to the employment in Lehigh and attract more doctors.
"We plan no layoffs and those who work for us in Lehigh we hope would follow us. We hope to get our bid approved and that construction can start at a place that I have not been made aware of yet. The goal is to have the new facility in operation by 2016.
Florida's Certificate of Need (CON) process includes many months of submitted plans and approvals. It is believed the new ER and Patient Care Center would be on the first floor of the present hospital. Jeannette did not have any idea about what the rest of the building would be used for.
For years, the perspective of the Lehigh hospital has not been good. New residents hear very soon that the hospital is not a place to go; however, those today who are placed in the hospital, voice few regrets.
It would appear that the people of Lehigh, closing in on a population of 100,000 people, may be learning that if you don't use a facility, it is more than likely that you will lose the facility.
LRMC is a private hospital for profit and if it cannot produce revenue acceptable to its owners, it can be shut down without going through any state rules.
However, Chief John Wayne said he hopes that the individuals responsible for the potential change would review all aspects of how this will impact the residents and visitors of Lehigh.
He said that in addition to Lehigh, it would have an impact on Glades County EMS, Hendry County EMS, and Collier County EMS.
"Immokalee routinely transports its patients to Lehigh Regional Medical Center as well. This closure and change will have an impact on these services, also."
Jeannette said the hospital will continue to support the Lehigh Acres Senior Citizen Center. Presently, the county owns the building on Plaza Drive, but it is LRMC that pays for its needs.
Jeannette said she is more than glad to answer questions from residents and would accept any invitation to speak before any group about the hospital's plan to relocate.