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General’s Expansion on Hold

August 3, 2008

By Ron Bartizek, The Times Leader, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

Aug. 3–WILKES-BARRE — A $100 million expansion of Wilkes-Barre General Hospital has been halted as the Wyoming Valley Health Care System seeks funding to complete the project.

The stoppage, which hospital officials describe as temporary, comes months after they spurned a $40 million offer of support for project costs from Blue Cross of Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Plans for adding space and upgrading facilities at Luzerne County’s largest hospital were announced in July 2006, days after Geisinger Health System revealed a $60 million expansion project at its Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center in Plains Township, three miles away from the city hospital.

The plan for General included nearly tripling the emergency care department and expanding the cancer treatment, cardiac and surgery areas within three years, as well as improvements to the computer infrastructure and electronic medical records system.

WVHCS Chief Executive Officer Dr. William Host said three operating rooms and a new information technology center have been constructed and a new high-tech scanning machine that can move between two rooms has been installed.

Beyond that, “every piece of the expansion that is not complete is on hold,” Host said last week.

The keystone of the project, a 96,000-square-foot critical care pavilion to be built along West Linden Street, was to incorporate the enlarged emergency department. General’s emergency room is the busiest in the Wyoming Valley, treating more than 50,000 patients annually in a cramped, 13,000-square-foot space.

Charles “Rusty” Flack, chairman of the health system’s board of directors, said the project will be back on track soon.

“We’re certainly going to continue to move the institution ahead,” he said. “There’s other ways to do it. At the moment we’re exploring all the options,” including reopening discussions with Blue Cross.

Host said in May that “the negotiations were intense and were extended over the better part of an 11-month period.” Neither he nor Flack would disclose the reason for the breakdown in talks.

The potential Blue Cross funding was announced in December 2006, part of the “Building a Healthy Future Together” initiative to allocate $175 million from the insurer’s surplus, which was valued at $462 million at the end of 2007. Another piece of that program, $50 million to assist the merger of Community Medical Center and Moses Taylor Hospital in Scranton, remains unspent after the state Attorney General’s office stopped the combination over fears of reduced competition.

“We’re still committed to finding ways to invest in the locally controlled, community-based health care delivery system,” said Blue Cross spokeswoman Michelle Davidson. She said that includes being open to new talks with Wyoming Valley Health Care and continuing to find ways to support the Scranton hospitals.

Meanwhile, the 178,000-square-foot Geisinger Wyoming Valley addition is slated to open ahead of schedule on Sept. 1, said spokeswoman Anne Green. Also incorporating a critical care wing, the project will create a 32-bed emergency department, new surgical suites and two floors of unfinished space that could hold 35 inpatient beds and 25 intensive care unit patients. Green said an $11.5-million plan to build out the intensive care unit is in the works.

Flack said funding for the General Hospital project would be resolved in “months, not years” and in the context of a larger vision. “We have a 10-year strategic plan; we’re looking at a long view.”

The General Hospital expansion drew substantial financial support from John and CeCe McCarthy and Charles and Mary Parente. Calls seeking comment from them were not returned.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Times Leader, Wilkes-Barre, Pa.

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