BATESVILLE, Ark. — White River Medical Center is planning a four-story, 60-bed facility that will add nearly 300 jobs over the next five years.
Ed Mabry, executive director of the Independence County Economic Development Commission, came before the quorum court asking it to fund $540,000 for this major expansion project. The ICEDC met Jan. 28 to review the grant; recommendations must go before the full quorum court for approval.
Mabry said this “seed money” will be used as leverage to obtain grants and monies from other programs. And, he said, the payback on the county’s grant is less than three years to the area in tax money. He said it’s not many projects that can boast such a quick return.
Groundbreaking for the $35 million project is scheduled for May 2. The facility will be located on the east side of the campus, where the laundry facility is now located. The half-million dollars from the county will help the project move forward and will give the White River Health System Foundation money to match grants. This will also allow the hospital to be more competitive and increase its regional status, Mabry said.
“This project came at just the right time,” WRHS administrator and CEO Gary Bebow said in a previous interview with the Guard. The hospital added seven new doctors last summer, and seven more are joining this summer. Bebow was at the quorum court meeting but did not speak; also there were Larry Sandage, director of institutional advancement for WRHS, and Angela Dugger, assistant director of institutional advancement for White River Health System. They had to leave early to attend another function.
The Patient Tower and Expansion project will mean an additional 270 jobs over five years, and Mabry said these are good paying jobs — the average wage of the employees in the expansion will be $15.86 an hour. Furthermore, the annual payroll will increase $4 million to $9 million per year. The tax revenue from that increase will greatly help both the city and county in future years, Mabry continued.
Dugger said it was about three years ago that WRHS developed a master facilities plan. WRHS interviewed consultants and began to “quietly” get feedback about the hospital’s needs. The No. 1 need in that survey was the emergency room, but in order to address that department there must be space to do so. This new wing will do just that, Dugger said. The project will take 18 to 24 months, and the price tag may end up closer to $40 million. The hospital foundation is committed to raising $5 million locally and will be working on other grant opportunities, Sandage said. Quorum court members unanimously approved the funding.
Valentine’s Day in 2001
It was on Valentine’s Day in 2001 when Doyle W. and Josephine Raye Rogers announced a “sweet” gift to White River Medical Center, so perhaps it’s fitting that the quorum court took up a funding request on the same day, exactly 10 years later.
The Rogers family donated $1 million to help establish the Josephine Raye Rogers Center for Women and Imaging. The $10 million, 54,000-square-foot facility opened in 2005, five years after another large construction project on the campus, the Cancer Care Center. When the first patient arrived at WRMC in January 1976, there were 108 beds, 17 physicians and 108 people on the staff. The hospital now has 199 beds, 81 physicians (nearly 100, counting the doctors working in the rural health clinics and at Stone County Medical Center) and 1,272 employees at WRMC and the clinics.
WRMC barely resembles its origins, a three-story structure that was built 34 years ago on Harrison Street. Auxiliary structures and new departments surround the campus, circled by the aptly-named Hospital Circle, with more doctors and medical offices just steps away from the hospital. One of the auxiliary structures is the Collier Annex, where materials management is housed. Dugger explained that every item that is delivered to the hospital arrives at Collier, is sorted and then hand-trucked to the different departments in the hospital. “The plan is to bring them in under the hospital roof” for improved efficiency, she said.
Across the street, the ER entrance may read “Patient Care,” but that doesn’t say it all. It’s the entrance for the ER, the Ambulatory Care Center, in-patient rehabilitation as well as critical care, handling the admissions for wound healing, hyperbaric, lab outpatient, respiratory therapy, noninvasive cardio and ultrasound and even pre-admissions. The primary admission desk, which separates the ER from ambulatory care, does all of the hospital’s admissions except for radiology (which is done at the women’s center), and that comes out to about 350 admissions a day. The ER had been designed to care for 60 patients in a 24-hour period, but now that number has climbed to 100, meaning the ER sees more than 30,000 patients a year. “That’s a lot to come through here,” Dugger said, adding that patients must be prioritized. Although the rooms are designed to accommodate more than one patient, there are times when a patient is alone in one of those rooms while outside, the waiting room is full of other people needing to be seen. Dugger explained patients in those rooms must be “compatible” with one another, including gender and illness.
On a recent Thursday at the hospital, Ashley Brickey, Ambulatory Care Center coordinator, said she’d already admitted 15 people for surgeries and seven for the cath lab. She said the location of her desk, which sits just inside the door, is not suited for the work. “Privacy is a lot of the issue; we don’t have a lot of space.” She may check in patients with families standing around the consultation room, while employees pass by on their way to the break room or housekeeping.
WRMC is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit facility. It doesn’t turn away patients because they can’t afford care. In fact, the hospital had $7.8 million in charity cases (Dugger said those do not include bad debts, but rather just the patients who applied for charity. Bebow said if more did apply, the number would be much higher.) Furthermore, renovation and expansion will occur in the Dietary, Cafeteria, Gift Shop, Pharmacy, Environmental Services, and Materials Management departments. The cafeteria footprint has not changed since the 1970s, although it’s been updated with new paint and furniture. It was built to serve 350 meals a day; it now serves 1,500. In the 1990s, the pharmacy was distributing 2,200 doses of medicine; today, that number is closer to 4,000, Dugger said. The pharmacy will also get a new space.
Adjacent to those areas is a staff entrance hallway, where equipment awaiting repairs may line the walls. On this particular Thursday there were five beds in the hallway, which is also used by maintenance taking out the trash. Furthermore, the cafeteria does not have enough storage so some food is kept in another area, and this is the same hallway used to access that outside storage space. “It’s a tight space and we’re doing the most we can,” Dugger said, noting that “It doesn’t just take doctors and nurses to take good care of patients.” The dining area will be open to the lobby, creating an atmosphere that will help families and visitors feel closer and more connected as they come in, as well as increase the seating capacity. The expansion will have four stories, with private patient rooms on the second and fourth floors. The first will house outpatient services, while the third will include heating/air conditioning and other services.
While the new rooms will be private, the hospital also plans to convert about 10 to 12 semi-private rooms to private. Bebow also said the hospital will eventually convert all patient rooms to private.
Also in the new wing, the nurses’ stations will be “decentralized,” with more of them located at fewer intervals, putting the nurses closer to the patients.
Dugger said the hospital administration also hopes to build a rooftop garden and a meditation garden. The outdoors space will be available to visitors as well as those patients able to “ambulate,” or move about. She again said the catalyst for the entire project was the ER, and without renovating it, the hospital is not able to move ahead with the rest. Although the ER will not be immediately expanded, relocating outpatient services away from the emergency department will provide the space needed for its future expansion.
The Timing is Right
Bebow said they “are excited about this project and the facility improvements that will allow us to better serve our patients and provide an improved environment for WRMC employees.”
“As a key employer of the region, we are grateful for the opportunity to make even more jobs available to our community members,” Bebow said.
Sandage said the hospital employees have taken up the cause as well. An employee campaign was begun in January, and in six weeks $275,000 had already been pledged.
“There is a positive response from our employees,” Sandage said. And, he continued, that “employee buy-in” resonated well with the ICEDC when it heard the proposal.
This project will help meet the needs of even more patients, particularly those who have gone elsewhere for care, Sandage told the Guard. The project also is one that couldn’t be happening at a better time, Bebow added. “With all the planning we’ve done … the timing is right.”