Dirt work for the new Baptist Memorial Hospital-Crittenden County is nearly finished, and the foundation slab could be poured in the next several weeks, County Judge Woody Wheeless told Talk Business & Politics.
The $44 million project is expected to be completed sometime in the fall of 2018. The county has been without a hospital since bankruptcy forced Crittenden Regional Hospital to close in 2014.
“It’s been a major burden not having a hospital,” the judge said. “It has taxed our ambulance services to death.”
When the county had a hospital, the average ambulance run was about 30 minutes. Ambulances now have to take patients to Memphis-area hospitals and the run time has ballooned to up to four hours per trip. Congested highways, distance, busy emergency rooms, and other factors have led to the expanded run times, Wheeless said. It leaves swaths of the county without service at times, he said.
Construction has been relatively smooth this summer, but there have been obstacles. The ground is like “gumbo,” Wheeless said, and three feet of surface dirt had to be removed before six feet of dirt could be applied. It had to settle for so many days before foundation work could begin. Plumbing pipes have been roughed in. Walls could rise on the landscape in October. Work on the cutters, drains, and parking lot are underway.
“The construction crews have done a great job keeping us on schedule,” he said.
The 65,000-square-foot facility will have 10 patient rooms, two emergency operating rooms, endoscopy room, a cancer infusion room, and other services. It will be a full-service hospital, but it won’t offer obstetrics, he said. It’s located at the convergence of I-555 and Seventh Street.
Baptist has several physicians in its system under contract, and several local physicians have been approached about working with the new hospital.
County voters approved a 1-cent sales tax hike in 2016 to pay for the hospital. The tax will last four five years, and it was projected to raise about $30 million. Collections have been slightly higher than anticipated, and it will likely be closer to $32 million. The rest of the project cost will be covered by Baptist Memorial Health Care, a company that operates 17 healthcare facilities in the Mid-South, including BEA Baptist Memorial Hospital in Jonesboro.
Baptist has a 10-year lease on the new hospital and a 10-year renewal option. It can also buy the hospital after so many years, Wheeless said, but it has to keep the hospital open for a set number of years, or ownership reverts back to the county. Economic developers in West Memphis and nearby Marion have lamented about how hard it is to lure job creators to the area without a viable hospital.
“We don’t want to not have a hospital in the future. … That’s the point of the tax and the work we’ve put in,” he said.
It’s estimated the hospital will see about 25,000 patients each year. Crittenden Regional had 150 patient beds, but there were only 16 patients in the hospital when it closed, Wheeless said. Baptist is taking a slow and cautious approach, and it’s the right way to handle the situation, he said.
The hospital has been designed so it can be expanded. Two major U.S. Highways – 40, and 55 – meet in West Memphis meaning millions of people travel through the region each month. The high traffic could mean more people seeking healthcare, he said. Talks about an industrial “super site” in Marion have begun again, and if jobs are created the healthcare needs within in the county will grow.
“I’m confident within 12 months we will be talking about an expansion at the hospital,” he said.