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Proposed hospital draws wide support

A Virginia Department of Health public hearing on Oct. 13 drew near-unanimous support for Riverside Health System’s proposed 50-bed Isle of Wight County hospital.

The VDH had scheduled the 11 a.m. hearing, and another one at 10 a.m. on a proposed 27-bed addition to Sentara Leigh Hospital in Norfolk, for the purpose of deciding whether the two projects would receive certificates of public need.

Since 1973, Virginia has utilized the certificate of public need process, which requires state approval for the construction of new hospitals or the expansion of an existing one. The state considers the Riverside and Sentara projects to be “competing,” since both will serve the VDH’s Planning District 20.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver is set to make his final decision regarding both projects on Dec. 8, but the “competing” designation doesn’t mean only one will move forward. According to Piero Mannino, supervisor of the VDH’s Division of Certificate of Public Need, it’s also possible both projects will be approved or denied.

More than 30 Isle of Wight and Surry residents spoke in support of Riverside’s proposal, which would be built on land near the Benn’s Grant housing development just outside the town of Smithfield. The proposed $100 million hospital would include 34 medical-surgical beds, 10 intensive care unit beds, six obstetric beds, general and intermediate-level neonatal intensive care unit services, four general purpose operating rooms, one CT scanner, one MRI scanner and one PET scanner.

Speakers during the hearing included medical professionals, business owners, residents and elected and appointed government officials.

Depending on traffic, it can take upwards of half an hour for Isle of Wight’s ambulances to reach hospitals in neighboring localities, a number of speakers argued.

“Most are familiar with the adages of ‘time is muscle’ related to heart attacks and ‘time is brain’ related to strokes,” said Riverside Dr. Gary Kavit during the 15 minutes the VDH allotted Riverside to make its case for the project prior to opening the hearing.

During the hearing, Isle of Wight Volunteer Rescue Squad Chief Brian Carroll argued the return trip for ambulances can take “as long as an hour,” particularly when those leaving Riverside Regional get stuck in traffic on the James River Bridge due to an accident or a drawbridge opening. That cuts down on the number of ambulances available in Isle of Wight County to respond to additional calls at any given time, he added.

“The unique geography of Hampton Roads, which relies on bridges and tunnels to connect people with care, is a barrier to care for those living in the counties of Isle of Wight and Surry,” said Dr. Chris Stolle, Riverside’s vice president of medical affairs.

Kim Liebold, an Isle of Wight County mother, can attest to that personally.

“About 30 years ago I gave birth to my son and was on my way to the hospital after I bled, and was praying that I would survive and that he would survive because I felt no movement until I got a mile outside Riverside, so that was 40 minutes of thinking that my child or I would not survive,” Liebold said.

The situation is even more dire in Surry County, according to Kinsey Chilcutt, who spoke on behalf of Surry’s Office of Emergency Services. Surry has only two paid emergency medical technicians on call each day, she said, and depends on volunteers and mutual aid agreements to field calls when those two are in transit to a hospital.

This, coupled with Surry’s distance from hospitals in Suffolk, the Peninsula and the Petersburg metro area, make it “extremely challenging to provide professional care in a timely manner,” Chilcutt said. “Having the Riverside Smithfield hospital will significantly reduce our call turnaround time.”

A local hospital would also be a lifeline for law enforcement officers, should they be injured in the line of duty, Isle of Wight County Sheriff James Clarke argued.

“Isle of Wight County is known as a bedroom community; a great majority of our residents travel outside of the county for employment,” said Jessica Jones-Healy, president of the Isle of Wight County Chamber of Commerce. “Riverside’s proposed hospital has promised to bring hundreds of jobs to the county … given Isle of Wight has an aging population, this hospital will provide the necessary services to keep this demographic healthy while also bringing a younger population to live and work in the county.”

An additional 30-plus residents who had dialed into the meeting but did not speak during the hearing said they supported the project when polled by VDH organizers. During the poll, a number of attendees who neither expressed support nor objection to Riverside’s proposal identified themselves as representatives of Sentara Healthcare, and one, who identified herself as Louise Edwards of Bon Secours Mercy Health, said she’d made written comments in opposition.

Bon Secours is a hospital system with facilities in the neighboring cities of Suffolk and Franklin. Edwards serves as Bon Secours’ executive director of planning and development.

Jenna Green, a spokeswoman for Bon Secours, would not provide a copy of Edwards’ written remarks and advised The Smithfield Times to submit a Freedom of Information Act request to the VDH to obtain the document. The Times did so and received a copy from the VDH on Oct. 14.

Edwards’ letter is dated Sept. 22 and addressed to Erik Bodin, director of the VDH’s Division of Certificate of Public Need. It asks that Riverside’s requested certificate of public need be denied on the grounds that a “substantially similar” Bon Secours project in North Suffolk was denied a certificate on March 11 of this year.

That project proposed expanding Bon Secours’ Harbour View Hospital project to add intermediate-level neonatal services, intensive care services with up to eight beds, and adding up to 16 medical-surgical beds, for a total of 54 beds. A 2020 VDH staff report deemed Bon Secours’ proposal “an unnecessary duplication of existing services” in the region, according to reporting by the Suffolk News-Herald.

There are currently five existing hospitals “located within a 30-minute drive of the proposed Riverside Smithfield Hospital location,” Edwards writes, and “no available” state hospital discharge data to demonstrate that the population that would be served by the proposed Riverside hospital “lacks adequate access to hospital care.”