Riverside, Sentara debate proposed project

The heart of the issue was whether competition between two hospitals would improve or degrade health care.
Williamsburg, Va -- For three hours, Riverside Health System made its pitch to an audience at a public hearing held in Williamsburg Regional Library on Wednesday for its proposal to build a hospital on 26 acres of land north of Route 199.

Opposition to Riverside's proposal primarily came from people affiliated with Norfolk-based rival Sentara Healthcare.

The arguments from both sides hinged on competition. Riverside said competition would give residents a choice, drive down costs and improve health-care quality. Sentara argued exactly the opposite, saying a second hospital would worsen doctor and nurse shortages, raise costs and dilute quality.

Riverside's project, named Doctors Hospital of Williamsburg, would cost about $82 million and have 69 beds that would be relocated from Riverside Regional Medical Center in Newport News. If approved, the hospital would not be completed for at least three years.

Steve Montgomery, project consultant for Riverside, led the presentation that included Power Point slides, personal letters and support from employees, doctors, the College of William & Mary and local government. Montgomery said that rapid population growth in Williamsburg, especially among people older than 65, would make it impossible for Sentara's hospital to serve everyone.

"There simply isn't enough room at the inn," he said. "Without the new hospital, you have a formula for poor service and forced ambulance diversions out of town."

Representatives from Sentara said a second hospital would jeopardize their new, 139-bed facility in Lightfoot, dubbed Sentara Williamsburg Regional Medical Center. It should open in the summer.

Dr. James Sammons Jr., vice president of medical affairs for the existing Sentara hospital, said that choice was an illusion and competition would spread doctors thin and make it nearly impossible to adequately staff either hospital.

"We don't have customers in health care in the traditional sense. We have patients," he said. "It's not like buying a car. When you're sick, it's not really a good time to go from dealer to dealer, shopping around. You rely on intelligence and integrity."

The comments were intense on both sides, in some cases splitting the same agencies.

James City County Fire Chief Tal Luton and Donald Dinse, president of the York County Professional Firefighters local, have long supported Riverside's plan, saying the area needs more emergency beds so that ambulances don't have to travel far away with patients in critical condition.

But their sentiments angered James Burgett, chairman of the York County Board of Supervisors.

"I am the official voice of the fire, police and emergency staff," Burgett said when he spoke at the podium. "We look forward to Sentara's new hospital."

Other speakers were concerned about cost and access to care.

Pastor William Dawson of Mount Gilead Baptist Church said the people in the communities surrounding Riverside's property were poor and elderly and needed affordable, convenient medical services.

"I'm concerned that Sentara has a monopoly on services, so they can charge what they want," Dawson said. "Many members of my congregation are worried they won't be able to get to the hospital in Lightfoot."

David Kranbuehl, a chemistry professor at the College of William & Mary, said Sentara moving its hospital to Lightfoot burdened the community.

"My wife is European and she takes the bus and walks to the grocery store. How is she going to get out there?" he asked. "There are no buses. How are the poor going to get out there?"

Dr. Shane Peng, a family practitioner in Norge, said his patients could easily get to the new hospital location.

"I have patients that come from all over Williamsburg and they find my office convenient," he said. "We have a strong local hospital and we need to preserve it."

The Eastern Virginia Health Systems Agency will recommend to the state health commissioner, Dr. Robert Stroube, whether to grant or deny Riverside's certificate of need application.

The agency's recommendation is expected in October. Stroube has until Feb. 14 to decide.

Published: September 8, 2005



 

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