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Health Care Authority, ACH board announces new hospital at Rivercane

The Escambia County Health Care Authority and the Atmore Community Hospital board announced this week that plans for a new hospital for the city of Atmore are moving forward, after a feasibility study recommended taking the action based on the age and condition of the current facility and the changing needs of the Atmore community.

Adams Management Services Corporation, along with Johnson Healthcare Real Estate, Goodwin Mills Cawood, and Healthcare Program Advisors conducted the study, which recommended the construction of a new facility that would hold 27 inpatient beds, 10 emergency room beds, 1-2 operating rooms, an ICU, and offer other services such as MRI, CT scan, echocardiogram, ultrasound, nuclear medicine, X-ray and urgent care services. The study looked at ACH historical data, state discharge data, the local healthcare market and changing demographic trends.

The new facility would cost an estimated $32 million and would replace the current facility outright.

“The Authority and the ACH Board realize that many of the community’s residents have questions and concerns about the new hospital,” said the ECHCA and ACH Board in a joint statement issued Nov. 26. “However, until the feasibility and market study was complete and the scope of the project confirmed, the Authority and Board were not in a position to provide validated responses. We now feel confident to provide details and, hopefully, answer questions and concerns that some of you may have.”

The current Atmore Community Hospital was built in 1946, utilizing Hill-Burton Act funds. The current hospital has far more inpatient bed capacity than the proposed new facility – 49 total, compared to the 27 beds proposed – but has only three emergency room beds, which has led to long wait times for Atmore residents and is one of the most common complaints raised about the current hospital. Board and authority members said enlarging the current emergency room would be impossible without also being forced to modify other areas of the hospital at substantial cost.

Another key facet of the plan to build a new hospital is the plan to also move its location, away from its current semi-residential setting and onto a parcel of land within Rivercane. The move would allow the hospital to take advantage of the New Market Tax Credit program, which would ultimately allow for a reduction in debt of between $7.5 million and $10 million.

“Without this type of financing, it will be very difficult to obtain financing for this project,” the ECHCA/ACH Board said in its release. “In addition, the opportunity to attract new patients and provide additional services is much greater at this location than the current location.”

Rivercane offers greater information technology infrastructure possibilities than does the hospital’s current location. Major fiber service lines have already been installed throughout Rivercane to support retail, commercial and industrial customers, and the hospital would have access to those same lines.

The ECHCA/ACH Board said the greater IT capacity in Rivercane would allow the hospital to offer more services and, in turn, attract physician specialists from Mobile or Pensacola who could provide services in Atmore on certain days of the week.

Will Ruzic, executive director of Coastal Gateway Regional Economic Development Alliance, said a relocation of the hospital to Rivercane would also help local officials market the Rivercane area to developers.

“A facility like that would certainly be a draw for the area,” Ruzic said. “New hospitals, new schools and things of that nature show vibrancy to the people and businesses you’re trying to attract. Many rural communities are losing their hospitals; in this case, Atmore would not only retain its hospital, but build a new and modern one instead. When you couple that with the amount of debt savings the program would capture through the New Market Tax Credit program, the timing couldn’t be better.”

Dr. Jonah McIntyre voiced his support for a new hospital and the benefits it would bring to the community.

“I wholeheartedly support the plans of the board to build a new hospital, and I thank them for their efforts to provide a modern facility from which quality healthcare can be delivered to my patients,” McIntyre said.

Suzanne McGill, director of nursing for Atmore Community Hospital, said she would support the move of the hospital to the Rivercane area if it meant more modern services would be available to patients.

“Having lived in close proximity to the hospital all my life, I’ll admit, there is comfort in knowing the hospital was near when I needed it,” McGill said. “Having said this, I can appreciate the concern some people have expressed with the decision to build the new facility near the interstate. However, healthcare is ever changing, ever evolving, and the needs of my family and our community are not exempt from these changes. Personally, I am excited to learn that relocating the hospital will allow us to improve clinical practice by advancing technologically through the use of fiber optics that are already available in that area. I look forward to being involved in the development of a state-of-the-art facility, which allows us the opportunity to better serve and meet the important healthcare needs of our community.”

The complete financing package would be a combination of USDA grant/loan funds, bank loans received through competitive bid, New Market Tax Credits and other public and private funds. The ECHCA/ACH Board said it would also look to keep ongoing costs low by negotiating better rates for medical supplies with its equipment suppliers, and consolidating revenue-cycle management with the other hospital it oversees, Brewton’s D.W. McMillan Memorial Hospital.

Management of the new Atmore facility would be self-contained and locally based, rather than under contract from an outside entity or other hospital.

As for the current hospital, the ECHCA/ACH Board said it would not leave an abandoned building at the site.

“We will first determine if a viable business can utilize the building