Ballad begins preliminary work to reopen Lee hospital

Mike Still • Jul 31, 2019 at 9:04 AM

PENNINGTON GAP — Final regulatory approval for a reopened Lee County Hospital may be months away, but Ballad Health is putting money and effort into the building.

Ballad Vice President and consultant Monty McLaurin and Lee County Hospital Authority Commissioner Howard Elliott checked on progress at the site Tuesday, as Ballad wraps up a series of community focus groups in early August.

McLaurin said the focus groups are helping the company prepare its community needs assessment for a state and federal application to turn the hospital into a 10-bed critical care facility after a six-year shutdown of the site.

“We’re assembling demographic information,” McLaurin said, “and we’ve been getting community feedback from three focus groups.”

Ballad representatives will be meeting with another focus group before a meeting of the community advisory committee in another week, McLaurin said. That will help round out the needs assessment for an application in September to the Virginia Department of Health and the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services to open the facility.

While Ballad has worked with the county authority on the application process since the two organizations signed a letter of intent in January, Ballad assumed the cost of electric utilities immediately thereafter.

“We were very close to running out of money when Ballad took over the utilities,” said Elliott. “My personal experience is that they’ve been transparent, honest and forward. Everything they said they’d do has gotten done. They took over the operating costs right after we signed the memorandum of understanding.”

McLaurin said the building’s interior was in fundamentally good shape when the company joined with the hospital authority to plan renovations. Two areas needing priority work were the roof and outdated data cabling. He showed a first-floor room where leakage had damaged the ceiling and stained some floor tile.

“We’re replacing the roof, and that will be $250,000,” McLaurin said.

All the data cabling will be replaced so the building will be compatible with a new computer system re-equipping all former Mountain States Health Alliance facilities in the Ballad organization, he added.

Workers have begun repairing the hospital helicopter pad — one of the few areas that suffered vandalism — and pad lights and windsocks are being replaced. Trees and foliage are being cut back to ensure safe approaches.

“For the building to be closed as long as it was, it is in great shape,” said Eddie Thomas, facilities manager from Ballad’s Lonesome Pine Hospital in Big Stone Gap.

Crews have already begun doing some work on the rooms, and McLaurin said planning has begun to install rails, shielding and other equipment to accommodate a CT scanner and other radiology and imaging equipment.

McLaurin and Ballad Community and Governmental Relations Director Stacey Ely credited the authority and the community with keeping the building in good condition.

“You didn’t see broken windows or damage,” McLaurin said. “It’s a credit to the community.”

Elliott said that after the authority had to stop hiring a watchman, the Lee County Sheriff’s Department took over patrolling the grounds. He said the Lee County Foundation also contributed to upkeep of the building over the past six years.

“The community was fierce in protecting this,” Ely said. “They knew it was a community resource.”

While the hospital is a four-story structure, McLaurin said the upgraded hospital will center on the first floor and the former emergency room area. Besides making patient movement easier, McLaurin said, the ground floor should have adequate space for hospital rooms, lab and imaging equipment, administrative spaces, social workers, technology support and storage.

“We won’t have food service in this building, but we’re in discussions with Lee Health and Rehab just up the street from here about them providing food service,” McLaurin said.

Since the hospital would be a critical care facility designed for an average 96-hour patient stay, McLaurin cited a possible partnership with Lee Health’s nursing facility capability.

The operating room would provide more storage space since surgeries would not be done onsite, McLaurin said. Other Ballad hospitals in Wise County and Norton or the Tri-Cities would handle surgical cases.

McLaurin said the hospital’s third and fourth floors could provide opportunities for other community partnerships and uses. Ballad has started discussions with the Lee County school system about locating its nursing program in the upper floors, and feedback from the focus groups could identify other community needs.

Once Virginia and federal authorities decide on the Ballad application, the company is poised to spend more than $10 million to redesign and renovate rooms for emergency room, intensive care and other uses. While plans depend on state and federal approval process timelines, McLaurin said, the goal is to have the hospital reopened in the fall of 2020.

Ballad is also renovating part of the hospital’s medical and physician’s office wing into an urgent care facility that will open by early October to provide some emergency medical services to the community.

Ely said the urgent care facility will not be a 24-hour operation, but it will work with area emergency medical services and other Ballad hospitals in case patients need to be stabilized and transferred for further care.

Once the planned hospital renovation is complete, the urgent care operation would close, since the emergency room would be open 24 hours.

Ely said tentative plans call for the estimated equivalent of 42 full-time employees for a reopened hospital, including doctors, nurses, administrative and support staff.

While Mark Leonard, chief operating officer for Ballad’s three hospitals in Wise and Dickenson counties and Norton, recently said that nursing shortages are an issue for those hospitals, McLaurin said he has heard from nurses in Lee County working outside the area that they are interested in working at the facility when it reopens.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a problem,” McLaurin said of the nursing situation. “We will hire locally to the extent we can.”

“We need the employment and economic stimulus,” Elliott said.

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