AUGUSTA — The opening of the state’s newest hospital Saturday signals a new era in health care and the final phase of the largest free-standing construction project in the region in decades.
The $312 million Alfond Center For Health also brought with it $13 million in road work and provided a big boost to the local economy for more than two years. Now the four-story structure that has risen on the rolling hills of a farm-turned-golf course will begin the job of providing care for local people.
The hospital staff is primed and ready, the new roadway network is complete, the ambulances are lined up to begin ferrying patients, and everyone hopes everything goes without a hitch Saturday at MaineGeneral Medical Center’s new hospital, which combines the inpatient services of the Thayer Center for Health in Waterville with all the services formerly provided by the Augusta hospital on East Chestnut Street.
Opening time for patients is 6 a.m., but the new facility won’t welcome visitors until 6 p.m.
Gawkers, too, are discouraged from getting too close as hospital officials work to move patients from the old hospital to the new.
“It’s all about patient safety and privacy,” said Nicole McSweeney, director of marketing and communications for MaineGeneral Medical Center.
Among those who are welcome immediately after 6 a.m., however, are women going into labor.
Chuck Hays, MaineGeneral Medical Center’s president and chief executive officer of MaineGeneral Medical Center as well as CEO of MaineGeneral Health, said staff have spent two years planning for the move and had an extensive series of practice sessions, including a mock move to time ambulance runs and routes and to determine the best route within the new hospital to get patients into their new rooms.
“It’s incredibly exciting now to see it all come together and see the incredible facility,” Hays said. “It’s a dream come true.”
The hospital spent $1.2 million training more than 1,700 employees to use the 640,000-square-foot facility.
Hays, McSweeney and a host of other administrative staff members have been working out of the new building for several weeks. The laundry has been operating there, as well as some other services, but the clinical portion ramps up Saturday.
“We don’t want people there just so they can see it all happen,” Hays said. However, in order to keep the community informed, hospital officials promised regular updates on the hospital’s Facebook and Web pages.
Practices in the Scott B. Bullock Medical Building open Monday. They include Augusta Family Medicine, as well as MaineGeneral Gastroenterology, Midwifery, Obstetrics & Gynecology, surgery, Pulmonology and Palliative Care, plus a number of clinics.
The community has had extraordinary involvement and interest in the new hospital at 35 Medical Center Parkway.
Officials committed themselves early in the process to using Maine companies and Maine workers. Occasionally firms banded together to be able to do such a large project, and others partnered with out-of-state firms when specialty work was needed.
At a sneak preview one Sunday in late September, about 12,000 people toured the new building. That number was in addition to thousands of families of employees, construction workers and donors, who were invited a day earlier.
The building project started in August 2011 as soon as financing was secured and involved extensive cooperation between contractors and hospital officials. It benefited from particularly fine weather, and it was finished seven months earlier than projected. Hays said the project is $2 million to $4 million under budget, although bills are still arriving.
Hays noted that this is the first new hospital in the state since 2001. That’s when the $12.5 million Bridgton Hospital opened, as well as the $32 million, 100-bed Mid Coast Hospital in Brunswick.
MaineGeneral Medical Center officials estimate 150 patients will be moved by 16 ambulances, a wheelchair van and a bus from its Augusta and Waterville hospitals. The vehicle used depends on the level of care needed.
The new hospital has 192 inpatient beds, all in private rooms. It’s a step down from the previous bed count. In 2008, MaineGeneral Medical Center had a total of 288 beds. With the closure of its Seton campus in Waterville, the number of inpatient beds dropped to 245. State regulators scaled down the number from the 226 beds originally proposed.
Hays said there has been a concerted effort to lower the inpatient census at both sites, so no elective surgeries are scheduled, for instance, and patients scheduled to be moved to other facilities, such as nursing homes or rehabilitation centers, will go there directly from the existing hospitals to avoid having to be moved twice.
All the new hospital entrances — except for the emergency room — will be used to bring patients from both the Thayer Center for Health in Waterville as well as the East Chestnut Street hospital in Augusta.
That transport is scheduled to take place 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Saturday.
The schedule calls for women in labor to be moved first. They’re labeled as among the hospital’s “most vulnerable patients.” They can be accompanied in the ambulance by a partner. However, Hays also said that the Thayer personnel are capable of delivering babies, should it be too late for transport. Child patients are being sent next and can be accompanied by a parent or guardian.
Critical-care unit patients follow. The schedule then goes by hospital unit, finishing with mothers traveling with their infants.
Every patient at both MaineGeneral Medical Center’s hospitals this week has been apprised of plans for the move, as have their families.
The move is being coordinated by HTS, Inc., an Emeryville, Calif., firm that has managed transitions to new health care facilities with as many as 1,000 beds.
Except for some kitchen equipment, no large machinery is being moved to the new building. Some newer mattresses are being transferred as well.
“The logistics of making sure a mattress is there when a patient is there is key,” Hays said.
Plans call for the Augusta inpatients to be moved first, since that site no longer will have clinical services. A security guard will monitor the emergency entrance at the East Chestnut Street hospital and redirect people to the new hospital. All emergency responders and ambulance services have been made aware of the location change.
The emergency department at Thayer will remain open as usual, and the hospital is extending the hours of its express care facilities in Augusta and Waterville for Saturday. They will be open 6 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
More details about the move are available at http://www.mainegeneral.org/move
Hays said the move to one hospital will not require any reduction in staff. “It’s obviously more efficient,” he said. “We don’t expect any layoffs.”
He said the hospital will be using fewer per-diem workers.
MaineGeneral Medical Center’s next move is a $10 million improvement project at Thayer, which is to start Monday.
Saturday’s consolidation of MaineGeneral Medical Center’s inpatient beds from Augusta and Waterville hospitals into a new regional hospital has been envisioned for more than a decade. The idea initially generated opposition, but the final consensus was that a regional hospital made the most sense, Hays said. The location proved elusive, however. After an initial suggestion of an in-between location near the Lyons Road exit of Interstate 95 in Sidney, the focus shifted to Augusta and, in particular, a site with easy interstate access.
Then in August 2005, the hospital bought more than 100 acres just off Old Belgrade Road to site its $25.6 million Alfond Center for Cancer Care, an outpatient-only facility that opened in July 2007. With some adjacent land added, it became the natural location for a new regional hospital as well. The difficulty was an awkward access to the highway because exit 113 did not connect directly to Old Belgrade Road. A $13 million road improvement project partly financed by the hospital and designed to address that access and a few other traffic problems was completed last week. Now two roundabouts provide the links between I-95 and Routes 3 and 27 in northwest Augusta.
“The day we dug the hole was the last time I was worried about whether this thing was going to happen,” Hays said.
McSweeney said people have realized they primarily use out-patient services, which will continue in both cities as well as other sites in the Kennebec Valley. “Potentially Thayer stands to be busier than they are today,” she said.
The hospital, too, is another link in a chain of consolidations. MaineGeneral Health, the hospital’s parent corporation, is the result of a 1997 merger of Kennebec and Mid Maine health systems.
The East Chestnut Street site has been sold to Augusta East Redevelopment Corp., a subsidiary of Mattson Development. The former Seton building and 80 acres were sold to Waterville Development Co., another company affiliated with developer Kevin Mattson.
Waterville will retain one inpatient hospital, the 48-bed Inland Hospital — owned and operated by Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems.
Betty Adams — 621-5631