ER expansion on SPLOST 2011 list

Photo by Howard Reed

Photo by Howard Reed

Editor's Note: This story is part of a multi-part series on projects that will be funded if SPLOST 2011 is approved by voters in the March 15 Special Election. The SPLOST is expected to generate $57.6 million over a six-year collection period.

COVINGTON - When the emergency room at Newton Medical Center was expanded in 1993, the facility was seeing 18,000 visits a year.

"The architect told us, this will last you until 2010, when you'll have about 28,000 visits a year. Well, we passed 28,000 visits 12 years ago," said Newton Medical CEO Jim Weadick.

Last year, there were approximately 43,000 visits to the ER - that's not counting family members who often come with the patient, easily pushing yearly pedestrian traffic to 150,000.

An expansion in the planning for three years has now become critical, Weadick said. The $4 million expansion is on the list of projects that will benefit if SPLOST 2011 is passed by voters.

It will be accomplished by knocking down the west wall of the current facility and rebuilding it 21 feet farther back, allowing for more space in the waiting area and an increase from 16 treatment rooms to 28. Renovation of the current emergency room to replace out of date and overworn items in the facility will be part of the project.

A quick stroll through the ER reveals several empty beds in the hallways -- beds that sometimes have to be occupied when the facility is overcrowded. Part of the issue is simply an increase in population that logically results in an increase in demand for services.

The other issue is that the hospital acts as a holding facility for individuals waiting to be transferred to state mental health facilities. They must first be medically cleared and then the wait for the state to initiate the transfer begins. Their stay can last from six to 36 hours. The hospital has had as many as 13 such cases at one time, according to Weadick. Cuts to the state's mental health department have resulted in the hospital becoming the default holding facility.

"No one else has the capacity," he said.

Plans for the expansion started in 2007, but were squashed when the economy tanked and cash flow to the hospital decreased.

"We did not want to incur bonded indebtedness," so the project was put on hold, Weadick said. This is the first time the Newton Medical Hospital Authority has requested SPLOST funds. None of the projects on the SPLOST will be bonded, commissioners have agreed.

"We need it approved to be able to address it now rather than continue to delay it," Weadick said, adding that the project will benefit the whole community.

"We think it's a high priority. Of all the things we do, this is the most important thing we undertake. Eighty percent of inpatient admissions come by way of the emergency room," Weadick said.

"SPLOST is a very effective way of meeting capital needs," he continued. "If SPLOST is defeated, we will not be able to move forward with this undertaking."