Joanie Jeannette, president and CEO of Lehigh Regional Medical Center on Lee Blvd., told members of the Lehigh Acres Community Council that the owners of LRMC plan to leave a first class Emergency Room in Lehigh even if the hospital closes.
LRMC applied a few months back to relocate the hospital away from Lehigh. Plans appeared to be in the Bonita area.
But officials at Lee County Memorial Systems, which owns the hospitals in Cape Coral and others in Fort Myers, including its largest, HealthPark Medical Center and a children's hospital, applied soon afterwards for a certificate of need, hoping to convince the state that Lee County Health Systems could provide the services there on land it had already purchased and by removing some of the beds from its other hospitals.
Residents of Bonita have wanted a hospital in their area for a long time and this seemed to be the right time, according to officials with Lee County Health Systems.
Jeannette, LRMC's administrator, attended last week's Community Council meeting and was introduced by Council President Jim Kreger.
"I'm here to clear up rumors in the community about our certificate of need put in (to the state) for a replacement for LRMC," she said. "A decision will be made likely this spring as which health system will be given permission to build another hospital in Lee County.
Odds are from many that the state will choose Lee Memorial Health Systems because it has already purchased the land while LRMC has not selected a spot, but did tell Lehigh residents the facility would be within 15 miles of the community if allowed to relocate. Bonita Springs is at a greater distance than 15 minutes from Lehigh however.
"Our hospital is still open," she said.
LRMC's Jeannette, accompanied the hospital's publicity relations manager, said the selection for the state agency to make was like a chess match ... who needs the hospital more and who can defend that choice more.
LRMC is a privately owned profit-driven hospital, while the others in Lee County and publicly owned.
"We had 36,000 visits to our emergency Room over the past year. It has been a very busy ER and is one of the largest in our division." LRMC is owned by corporate offices in Naples.
"We feature a 'fast track' in our ER for 60 to 70 percent of those coming for service, and 10 percent of them are admitted to the hospital.
LRMC has already been promoting its Emergency Room Plus on TV but at the meeting, Jeanette said she did not know what the owners would do if not given a certificate of need to relocate and build somewhere else in the county.
Someone asked that if the bid was given to Lee Health Systems to relocate and the hospital was not making profits, would it be shut down?
She said didn't have an answer, but that it would be up to the hospital owners on the corporate level. Most people in Lehigh may not be aware that it is possible that the hospital could close down.
Jeannette said the hospital has 88 beds and that they are never filled. She said many people select to ignore LRMC and go to hospitals in Lehigh.
"This hurts our financial picture. We have all the latest equipment and those who are admitted say they have been well satisfied with the hospital.
"But there is a bad perception in Lehigh and how to overcome that is a problem," she said.
Officials at the Lehigh Acres Fire Dept. say a great many people when asked after an ambulance has been dispatched have asked to be transported to a hospital in Fort Myers. If the hospital shuts down, EMT officials at the fire department are concerned that they may have to provide another ambulance.
"The majority of Lehigh residents go to Fort Myers for their hospital stays," Jeanette said.
Lehigh Acres has a population of 87,000 to 89,000 people, according to the U.S. Census, she said. The service area of LRMC is Lehigh and points eastward and a small part westward toward Fort Myers.
For those who use the ER, 40 percent of patients are unable to pay because they have no insurance. And of those who do use the hospital, some 12 to 15 percent can't pay, she said.
Jeanette said that she continues to attract physicians to the Lehigh hospital.
"Many of them like Lehigh," she said.
But the bottom line is that there is a good possibility that the hospital could choose to close. Or it could choose to remain open and eye other plans, maybe even renovation.
But the ER remains the "fastest one" for patients to go through "quicker than any other in town (Fort Myers)," said Jeanette.
It was noted by some who attended the Community Council meeting that there has always been a perception that if you go to LRMC, you will leave in a body bag.
It is something that Jeanette hates to hear because of the modern technology and known-how by professionals at the hospital.
Some noted that the perception of the hospital is often its appearance and LRMC has not been remodeled on the outside much since it was built decades ago. But the inside of the hospital is clean and the employees are friendly and the hospital is top notch inasmuch as it has the latest equipment and can treat most patients as well as any other hospital in Lee County. It has earned national recognition just recently for its performance.
It does send stroke and heart attack victims to another hospital in Fort Myers, Jeanette said.
But even if the hospital shuts down, Jeanette says the corporation of HMA plans to maintain an Emergency Room in Lehigh.
While some noted there has been no "grassroots" level of people fighting to keep the hospital from shutting down, some at the council meeting said there were some businesses that may be working and talking with its owners.
But in order for the hospital to stay open, the people of Lehigh must use its facilities and have the ability to pay their bills. The 88-bed facility should be filled with a population such as in Lehigh, but that is not the case, Jeanette said.
While some said some business people wanted to keep the hospital open in Lehigh, there has been no public display of its residents to keep the hospital open or to use its facilities in numbers expected from such a large community, something that Jeannette says surprises her.
She said that if Lee County Health Systems is given the bid to build a hospital in Bonita, she does not know if the corporate owners would attempt to ask for permission to build in another location in Lee County, away from Lehigh Acres.
"That's something they have not shared with me," she said.