What may be brewing is a fight on the level of the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration now that Lee Memorial Health Systems has filed a letter of intent to build up to an 80-bed hospital on Coconut Road in Bonita Springs to serve the residents of that area and Estero.
The bid to build another hospital in Lee County comes after a few weeks when Lehigh Regional Medical Center filed a certificate of need to build an 88-bed hospital somewhere in southeastern Lee County and shut down the hospital in Lehigh, all but the Emergency Room and a Health Care Center.
The announcement that LRMC wants to pull out of Lehigh has angered many in the community who say the town of nearly 90,000 needs its own hospital. It also serves residents to the east of Lehigh. Joanie Jeanette, the president and CEO of LRMC said if approved by the Health Care Administration, construction could begin and be finished by 2016, at which time there would be no hospital in Lehigh. Jeannette said she looks forward to working through the Certificate of Need process to ensure the best health care services are provided
Jim Nathan, who heads Lee County Health Systems for Lee County, which owns all the other hospitals in Lee County, said three weeks ago that the departure of LRMC from Lehigh leaves the community without a hospital that is needed in the area. The Lehigh Acres Community Planning Corp. (LACPP) has come out against the move away from Lehigh and plans to notify the Health Care Administration with their members' objections.
There has been some conjecture that LRMC may relocate to the Bonita Springs area but no official announcement was made. Jeanette said LRMC would seek to find land 15 miles from Lehigh which angered Edd Weiner, a Lehigh Acres activist and community leader.
"It's a slap in our face here in Lehigh," Weiner said. Lehigh Acres Fire Chief John Wayne also has said an extra ambulance could be needed if the hospital relocates. The fire department operates an EMS service and transports patients to hospitals. Wayne said it would cost double to a patient if he or she is taken to LRMC's ER and then another ambulance is summoned to take the patient to another hospital.
However, officials with Lee Memorial health systems said the proposed hospital they plan would be built on 33 acres owned by the health system, located just south of Coconut Point Mall and adjacent to the Bonita community Health Center.
Nathan said the land was purchased during the boom years with the intent of one day building a hospital on it but that the economic downturn slowed those plans.
"When HMA (owner of Lehigh Regional Medical Center based with corporate offices in Naples) revealed plans to move Lehigh regional Medical Center out of Lehigh and to the Alico Road corridor, we knew we needed to step up our timetable as such a project off Alico could possibly impact the ability of the citizens of the southern part of Lee County from getting a hospital for many more years.
"We believe this site located on the Estero-Bonita border is the best alternative for a hospital to serve the growing portions of southern Lee County," Nathan said in a prepared announcement.
However, when LRMC's president and CEO Joanie Jeanette made the announcement, she said no site had been selected or at least if so, corporate had not told her.
Nathan said that by locating the new hospital in the geographic area of Bonita spring and Estero, it will provide a balanced distribution of hospital beds throughout Southwest Florida. According to Nathan, the health system intends to delicense some unused beds at Lee Memorial Hospital on Cleveland Ave. as part of the application to build a new hospital in Bonita Springs.
LRMC is private hospital while Lee Memorial Health Systems if a public hospital which can accept donations from the community. As a privately run hospital, HMA could choose to shut down the hospital if there are economic problems.
Jeannette said LRMC planned to keep a large Emergency Room and a Patients Care unit on the bottom floor of the hospital. There was no mention what would happen to the upper floors and Lehigh's Edd Weiner said the community could be left with an empty building.
But Nathan said locating the new hospital built by Lee County Health Systems in the geographic area of Bonita and Estero will provide a balanced distribution of hospital beds thorough Southwest Florida.
To prevent duplication of health care services, which can drive up costs, hospitals must be issued a Certificate of Need (CON) before gaining approval to relocate beds from an existing hospital or to move a hospital more than one mile from its existing site. When competing applications are received, the Health Care Administration of the state reviews the applications and selects the best proposal.
Nathan said the next steps in the CON process include the submittal of a preliminary application which is due in early March, and the submittal of the full application in early April.
"We are aware Lee Memorial Health System filed a letter of intent for a new hospital in Bonita Springs/Estero. We agree there is a need for a hospital in south Lee County, which is what precipitated our own letter of intent two weeks ago. We have a great relationship with Lee Memorial. We look forward to working through the Certificate of Need process to ensure the best health care services are provided to the Southwest Florida community," said LRMC's Joanie Jeannette, the CEO and president of the facility.