In a surprising announcement for some, and in a last minute decision, owners of Lehigh Regional Medical Center (LRMC), say they have decided not to pursue a certificate of need from the state to leave Lehigh Acres and build a hospital somewhere in southern east Lee County.
That opens the doors for Lee County Health Systems to continue to work toward construction of a hospital somewhere in the vicinity of the Bonita Springs and Estero area on land it has already purchased.
Diann Cimring, LRMC's marking director said the hospital will remain open to provide high quality health services for Lehigh patients. She said there had been no mention of the hospital closing, which is good news for the Lehigh community and nearby areas in which it serves.
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Lehigh Regional Medical Center.
LRMC is a for-profit hospital and its owners, Health Management Associates, based in Naples, said last week that stock prices were suffering from a poor economic climate. According to news accounts, shares of HMA fell 16.4 percent in trading one day last week to close at $19.53 after the firm cut its earnings outlook for the quarter and fiscal year.
CEO Jim Nathan, who heads lee Memorial Systems as president and CEO said he had received word from HMA's offices in Naples that the company had decided not to go for the certificate of need and instead work to focus on improving health care in Lehigh Acres.
Alan Levine, president of HMA's Florida Group of hospitals, said that they didn't see any benefit to a protracted fight over the Certificate Of Need and would not be submitting the completed application to relocate to the state agency.
There was no comment from Lee Memorial on HMA's decision.
Earlier this year, LRMC announced it was planning on moving Lehigh Regional Medical Center to another location in southeast Lee County in the Alico Road corridor and shut down the site in Lehigh.
Joanie Jeannette, president and CEO of Lehigh Regional Medical Center, said if the 88-bed hospital shut down and got permission to build a new hospital in southeast Lee County, LRMC would continue to have an Emergency Room, second to none in the county. She had also said there may be a care clinic at the site. Jeanette appeared before various groups in the community to say why LRMC was looking to build elsewhere and the same question came up from the public.
That question was "Is the hospital going to shut down if it does not get a permit to build elsewhere in Lee County?"
In each instance, Jeanette, who has been CEO at LRMC for at least three years, said corporate leaders in Naples had not shared such information. But Cimring confirmed the announcement that the hospital was not planning to shut down. It would focus on providing the best health care it could in Lehigh, she said.
However, there are some in the community who believe the hospital could shut down because of poor revenues. Jeanette has said that many patients to the hospital are unable to pay their bills.
It is a major policy move that LRMC has chosen not to fight for the right to build another hospital in the county. The hospital has reported it had a $941,000 deficit in 2010, taken from the most recent financial data available. As the economy has worsened, the financial information may be even worse.
Jeanette says the 88 beds at the hospital are never filled and that Lehigh residents choose other hospitals in Lee County for health care, which she did not understand. She explained that LRMC has the latest technology to test and treat patients and has an excellent staff of physicians and nurses on staff. If patients arrive at the ER with a stroke or heart attack, they are transferred to another hospital in the county that specializes in those problems.
The hospital in Lehigh has been recognized nationally at least twice over the past several months for its excellent service.
When HMA said in February that it had chosen to ask for a Certificate of Need to relocate LRMC's licensed beds to an area in southeast Lee County, near Interstate 75, speculation centered that it would be on parcels on Alico Rd. and near the Southwest Florida International Airport.
HMA and LRMC had said the hospital would be within 15 minutes of Lehigh and could still treat local patients but many in the community did not believe it would be possible to be within 15 minutes of Lehigh.
Lehigh Acres Fire Dept. Chief John Wayne said that if LRMC was to shut down and move the hospital and still maintain an Emergency Room, that the department would have to purchase at least another ambulance, because of what he perceived would be strong usage of ambulance service: one ambulance taking a patient to the ER, and then later, another ambulance called upon to transport the patient to another hospital in Lee County.
LRMC is the only for-profit hospital in Lee County. Other hospitals in the county are public hospitals and are located in Fort Myers and Cape Coral.
Over the past few months, Lee Memorial had put a special email account on the Internet to ask for letters of support from the community and a spokesman, Mary Briggs, said it had received more than 2,000 emails.
Lee Memorial purchased land in 2005 and 2006 but according to news accounts, had rejected community demands for a hospital in the Bonita Springs and Estero area.
But when LRMC announced its decision to build at another site somewhere in the Alico Rd. corridor, Lee County Health Systems announced plans within days to speed up its plans to obtain a CON (Certificate of Need application).
Now the state agency has to decide if there is a need for another hospital in Lee County and give Lee County Health Systems permission to build. The hospital had announced it would move many of its beds from the present Lee Memorial Hospital in Fort Myers to the new site. The EMS at the Bonita Springs Fire District has shown interest in transporting patients in the area. Bonita Fire Chief Joe Daigle said 88 percent of patients transported out of Bonita are now being taken to hospitals in Collier County. He said a hospital in the area would be of great service to the patient no matter who is transporting; however, he said the best thing for the patients in south Lee County would be for the hospital to go through with its plans to build a new hospital in the area.