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Decision Nears On St. Elizabeth’s Hospital Move

President and CEO, Maryann Reese, stands in front of St. Elizabeth's Hospital in downtown Belleville, IL. The current building was completed in 1954.
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio

Update 12/16/14: St. Elizabeth's Hospital has asked the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board to delay their planned vote over the hospital's move because not all board members will not be present at their December 16 meeting. The board's next meeting is January 27, 2015.

When hospitals move or close down, it can be a sign of shifting populations, changing medical needs, or financial trouble. As soon as next week, St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Belleville could receive word from a state regulatory board on whether its proposal to shutter its current location and build a new hospital 17 minutes away will be permitted.

Public health officials say the move could leave some of St. Clair County’s most vulnerable residents without a hospital nearby. But St. Elizabeth’s, which is part of the Hospital Sisters Health System, contends the $288 million project would allow for necessary updates and would be more accessible to most of its patients. The proposed site sits on the edge of O’Fallon, by the interstate.

St. Elizabeth's Hospital is just a few blocks from Belleville’s downtown, which is filled with restaurants, a German Christmas market and an old-fashioned movie theater that pipes music into the street. The hospital sees about 585 patients  every day.

“Every time I go in there, that’s the place where I know I was born. It’s a heartfelt memory that I will never lose,” said Morgan Edwards, 30-year-old Belleville resident. “It’s home to Belleville.”

Built in the 1950’s, St. Elizabeth's Hospital is tall and beige with a modest, art deco-inspired façade. The hospital's president and CEO, Maryann Reese, said the building is aging. It's constrictive and renders some current medical technologies useless.

“For example, we got new beds. $1.5 million we spent on new beds. They notify the nurse by wireless technology that a patient’s about to get out of bed. So, if a high risk patient falls, that’s important for the nurse to know,” Reese said. “We have 18-inch cinder block walls here. We cannot use wireless technology for those beds, which is really disappointing.”

St. Elizabeth’s proposal, submitted to the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board, includes a six-floor hospital, physicians' offices and a $34 million ambulatory care center situated along Interstate 64 in O’Fallon. An urgent care center and physicians' offices would remain in Belleville, but the hospital would be razed if no developers step forward to purchase the building. The board must vote to approve the application as a Certificate of Need, which may happen as soon as December 16. 

An artist's rendering of the replacement hospital proposed by St. Elizabeth's in O'Fallon.
Credit Hospital Sisters Health System
An artist's rendering of the replacement hospital proposed by St. Elizabeth's in O'Fallon.

The new hospital would hold 144 inpatient beds — less than half the number currently at St. Elizabeth’s. Reese said the beds are no longer needed because birth rates are going down, and healthcare is shifting its focus to outpatient and preventive care as a result of the Affordable Care Act.

“You can argue whether the law is a good one or not, but when you think about quality healthcare, it really is incentivizing us to be more quality driven. Part of that is making sure patients are not readmitted, so therefore, [there are] less beds from that,” Reese said.

Reese said an internal study showed that 75 percent of St. Elizabeth’s patients live outside of Belleville—making the new location more accessible for ambulances transporting patients.

But Herb Simmons, who directs the Emergency Management Agency for St. Clair County, doesn't agree. The hospital on the other side of town, Belleville Memorial Hospital, is already building a satellite location just two miles away from St. Elizabeth’s proposed site in O‘Fallon. 

Map by St. Louis Public Radio's visual data specialist, Brent Jones. 

“I would have liked to have the two hospitals get together and say, ‘How do we work together here?’ But I think when people put profits over people’s health, that’s what you end up with,” Simmons said.

For heart attacks, strokes and physical trauma, minutes spent in an ambulance can be a matter of life or death. Simmons said the hospital didn’t contact his agency about how its closure would affect ambulance response times before they submitted their application to the state. 

“When you transfer patients seven miles farther from the location that you’re normally taking them, there’s a longer response time to get the patients there. Then your ambulances are that that much farther away from their response area,” Simmons said.  

Moving to O’Fallon is probably a good business decision for the hospital. The city has seen a faster population growth over the past couple of decades, and median incomes in O'Fallon are about 30.7 percent higher than in Belleville, which indicates that the population is more likely to be privately insured. 

Holiday decorations adorn downtown Belleville, just a few blocks from St. Elizabeth's Hospital.
Credit Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
Holiday decorations adorn downtown Belleville, just a few blocks from St. Elizabeth's Hospital.

Simmons said he's already seen two hospitals close in the eastern St. Louis metro area, and he'd hate to see another.

“The first one was Christian welfare hospital. I saw what that did on the inner part of East St. Louis and the burden and strain that it put on St. Mary’s hospital,” Simmons said. “When that hospital shut down, you can see the impact it’s got there. You’ve got a building that’s sitting there slowly deteriorating.”

The St. Clair County Health Department also criticized St. Elizabeth’s proposal. It submitted a letter to the state regulator in October. “A large concentration of medically underserved and vulnerable population lives in close proximity to the current location (in Belleville),” wrote the Executive Director of the St. Clair County Health Department, Kevin Hutchison. “Transportation barriers may reduce access to the proposed location, resulting in a shift of emergency and ambulatory care services to other hospitals that may not have the capacity to meet this increased demand.”

Should the plans be approved, about 1,000 employees will move with the hospital to O’Fallon by the end of 2017. That means the lunchtime rush in downtown Belleville will change drastically.

Scott Muir opened the Righteous Pig Barbecue in downtown Belleville eight months ago--now, he worries losing the hospital will affect his business.
Credit Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio
Scott Muir opened the Righteous Pig Barbecue in downtown Belleville eight months ago. Now he worries losing the hospital will affect his business.

“It’s going to have an effect on downtown business, absolutely.  Whether it’s the gas station, retail store, the restaurants or whatever,” said Scott Muir, owner of the Righteous Pig Barbecue. Muir and his business partner opened the restaurant about eight months ago, and receive a good chunk of business from hospital employees and patients.

Even though about 200 people would remain to staff the services remaining in Belleville, many downtown business owners have expressed concern over the proposal. Muir said he’s gone to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital all his life and likes knowing it's close by.  

I wish they would stay. Belleville’s a large enough community that they need two hospitals.  I see absolutely no reason to leave another building vacant in Belleville.”

Follow Durrie Bouscaren on Twitter: @durrieB