Pandemic puts Lancaster’s changing health care scene on hold

More than a year has passed since UPMC Pinnacle announced it would close its hospital in the city of Lancaster, and plans to turn the complex into a mixed-use development have now slowed because of the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, UPMC Pinnacle and other healthcare providers have been expanding services or planning new facilities, although some of those larger projects are now on hold while the pandemic unfolds, observers said.

“It is not realistic that it will remain a hospital, so there is a realization that it is not going to stay a hospital,” said Marshall Snively, president of the Lancaster City Alliance, a nonprofit that promotes growth and stability in the city. “But we are working to ensure what does replace it would continue to be a benefit to the city and the neighborhood.”

It took time for some neighbors to come around to what will be a new normal for the neighborhood, Snively said. The idea of getting the building on the city tax rolls — as a mixed-use development that would include commercial operations, residential units and perhaps some sort of healthcare agency — would meet that goal, he added.

Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health is looking into a number of expansions for Lancaster General Health. PHOTO/FILES –

Plans had been moving along, with city officials discussing possible options with UPMC Pinnacle. Then the coronavirus crisis swept the country, creating higher priorities for health systems, said Jess King, chief of staff for the city.

“Long and short of it is that I believe most plans are on pause for the hospital, as the petitioner (UPMC) has public health priorities at the moment,” King said in an email. “Prior to the pandemic, we were waiting to hear from them, as they were looking at several offers on their building and weighing those offers. With the economic impact of the pandemic, I do not know what may have changed with those offers.”

A spokesperson for UMPC Pinnacle said the organization has submitted a request to rezone the property — which was once known as Lancaster Regional Medical Center — to mixed use, so that any future development will be consistent with the surrounding area and the goals of the city overall.

“UPMC Pinnacle continues to work with potential buyers,” said Kelly T. McCall, public relations director for UPMC Pinnacle in Harrisburg. “The current zoning for the property is very restrictive and would not permit development of the property in a manner consistent with surrounding neighborhoods.”

Since the closing, McCall said, UPMC Pinnacle has made improvements to its other services in Lancaster County.

“We have combined a rich, 125-year-old tradition of caring for our community with a modern facility in Lititz,” she said in an email. “In doing so, we are ensuring the continued availability of high-quality clinical care for generations to come. … In addition, we have hired many new providers and new employees to accommodate our increasing patient volumes.”

In the meantime, other health organizations have been updating their services in Lancaster County, including Penn State Health, which announced plans last year for a new acute-care hospital near PA-283 in East Hempfield Township just north of the city. Scott Gilbert, a spokesperson for Penn State Health in Hershey, noted that the board of directors approved a groundbreaking on the project in February. However, construction will be delayed because of the virus.

When it does open, the new hospital will be on about 30 acres near State Road and Harrisburg Pike and will have 129 beds in the five-story facility, Penn State Health has reported.

Before the crisis, several observers noted, one concern was whether there would be enough healthcare workers to staff the new hospital because of the severe labor shortage, especially in the healthcare industry. Pinnacle workers who lost jobs after the city hospital closed likely had little difficulty finding new positions, either with other UPMC Pinnacle facilities or at other companies, said Tom Baldrige, president of the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

He and others said they were confident new healthcare services would find the staffing they need, because several agencies and schools in Lancaster County continually working to train healthcare workers. The various efforts to boost healthcare options will help fill any voids in care left by the closing of the hospital, Baldrige also said.

“All of that allows people to find the available healthcare that they need,” he said.

For example, Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health has plans to expand its operations in Lancaster County, including at Lancaster General Hospital on Duke Street. However, those efforts have been delayed, as well.

“At this time, LG Health construction and expansion projects have been placed on hold to focus on COVID-19 efforts,” said Mary Ann Eckard, public relations manager with Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health.

To further combat the virus, Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health and UPMC Pinnacle teamed up in early April to create an outpatient specimen collection site at 650 N. Prince Street in the city.

“By locating this collection site outside of Clipper Magazine Stadium, we are able to serve the needs of Lancaster city and the surrounding community in an easily accessible and safe environment,” Brooks Turkel, president of Lancaster Region, UPMC, said in a statement.

Three area hospitals earn 5-star ranking from Medicare

Three area hospitals received a five-star ranking from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the federal agency that administers the Medicare program. The CMS released its annual Hospital Compare star ratings last week, illustrating the quality performance of more than 4,500 hospitals in the United States.

Fourteen of Pennsylvania’s 197 hospitals received a five-star ranking, the highest awarded. Hospitals are ranked with one to five stars. CMS recognized Chambersburg Hospital in Chambersburg, Lancaster General Hospital in Lancaster, and Waynesboro Hospital in Waynesboro, Franklin County, with the highest rating.

The CMS’s Hospital Compare ratings measure common conditions treated and how hospitals performed. It also includes information on infection rates, complications and patient experience.

The three area five star-rated hospitals exceeded or met national averages in categories relating to the reduction of 30-day readmission rates and 30-day mortality rates, patient safety and adverse events, and reductions to readmission rates.

The full list of Hospital Compare star ratings can be found here.

Expansions to Lancaster General considered

Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health is looking into a number of expansions for Lancaster General Health. (Photo: Submitted)

Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health is looking at three possible expansions to Lancaster General Hospital that together would be the largest expansion in the Duke Street hospital’s history.

The hospital system’s Board of Trustees expects to make a decision next month if it will pursue the preliminary plans to double the hospital’s emergency department, update its food services and create a tower with private patient rooms.

The hospital is facing increasing rates of patient visits. In 2018, the Lancaster City hospital’s emergency department saw nearly 118,000 visits – 28,000 people over its capacity of 90,000. Lancaster General is now the last acute care hospital in the city with the closing of UPMC Pinnacle Lancaster this year, so the system expects those number to continue to increase.

“We’ve made great strides over the past five years enhancing access to our care while guiding people to the optimal settings for their medical needs, such as our urgent care center or outpatient facilities,” Jan Bergen, Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health President and CEO said in a press release. “Increasing demand, population growth and changes in the local provider landscape require a thoughtful expansion of Lancaster General Hospital.”

The project is still in its early phases and could change drastically as it moves through municipal review and the Board of Trustees. If the project is approved in its current form, construction could begin as early as winter 2020.

The first phase of the project would move the current food service department from the ground floor of the hospital to an announced new location. The new dining room and kitchen area is expected to offer a wider selection of foods with more of an emphasis on spaces in the dining area to sit and relax.

With the food service department moved from its location on the ground floor, the project calls for an additional 41 treatment bays in the emergency department. The expansion into the emergency department would add a permanent addition of 32,550 square feet to the existing 38,660-square-foot department for a total of 71,200 square feet.

To hold over until a permanent fix is found, the hospital is preparing a nine-treatment-bay temporary addition to its emergency department to be ready this June. The temporary fix will give the 54-bay emergency room a boost in beds as it deals with increasing trauma cases in a department that was last renovated in 2003.

After the expansion would be completed, the hospital would then renovate the original emergency department bays to the specifications of the new ones.

According to Penn Medicine, the cost of the expansions to both the dining area and the emergency department is estimated at around $115 million.

The final expansion is an inpatient tower that would increase the hospital’s current bed count of 537, while also allowing it to get rid of its oldest and smallest rooms which don’t hold up to current standards of larger single-patient rooms with space for family and added privacy.

“With so many resources devoted to building the new emergency department, kitchen and dining areas, it’s prudent to think about the efficiency of also replacing nursing units that have served us well for decades,” Bergen said. “By acting today, we could avoid returning in future years with another major and disruptive construction project.”

The patient tower at Duke Street does not yet have an expected cost, according to Penn Medicine. The entire project is expected to take up to three years to complete if it is approved.