Today, a steady flow of ambulances will take patients from hospitals in Augusta and Waterville to the Alfond Center for Health, ushering in a new era for health care in the region. The opening of the $312 million facility signals the end of a years-long effort to open a regional hospital in central Maine, and it comes with a lot of excitement.

As the state’s newest hospital and a project of unprecedented size for the region, it also comes with a lot of expectations.

The hospital promises to provide greater access to services and a higher level of quality in health care. It will set the agenda in the sector for central Maine for years to come, at a time when health care is changing rapidly. Add in its place as the region’s largest employer and an economic development attraction, and the importance that the hospital gets things right cannot be understated.

First, MaineGeneral Health should be commended for its efforts thus far. The construction of the new hospital finished early and under budget.

Today’s transition still remains, however, and it is a tremendous undertaking. In a meeting this week at the Kennebec Journal, Chuck Hays, chief executive officer of MaineGeneral Health, said 1,700 employees have undergone a total of 45,000 hours of training over the course of 20 months in anticipation of opening day. The hospital has held two “day in the life” sessions to test all the scenarios that will play out in a typical 24 hours at the new facility, complete with fake emergencies and operations. Services have been slimmed down at the old hospital, and each day staff has gone through the moving routine with patients to familiarize them with what will happen today.

Hays and the rest of the hospital leadership are confident the transition will go smoothly, and if it does it will be a testament to the hard work and foresight of hundreds of central Maine residents.

In many ways, though, the real work starts after the hospital opens.

Hays said the hospital is undergoing a number of changes to keep people healthier and control costs. It’s part of a monumental shift in health care away from a system that depends on a high patient volume to one that encourages the kind of care and wellness activities that keep people out of hospitals.

MaineGeneral has started that effort with a pilot program with the Maine State Employees Association that uses risk-based contracting instead of the more traditional fee-for-service model, Hays said. The hospital is paid a fixed amount for each person under the plan, providing incentives to keep the patient healthy and away from expensive emergency procedures. A team at the hospital follows up with each individual to make sure they are monitoring their health and making regular appointments, and steps in to help remove barriers to care, such as lack of transportation.

To the same end, the hospital is increasing the number of primary care physicians, and elements such as a teaching kitchen and walking trails have been constructed to encourage an environment of wellness at the new facility.

Maine’s aging population means the demand for health care will grow dramatically in the coming years, putting a strain on the people who have to pay for it. The Alfond Center for Health will be judged not only by its impact on patient services and economic development, but also on the savings it provides.

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