BUCKHANNON — After turning things around and becoming poised as an area leader in healthcare, St. Joseph’s Hospital stands to lose a lot of ground they have gained if the West Virginia Health Care Authority allows a neighboring hospital to rebuild too close to Buckhannon.
Administrators of St. Joseph’s Hospital arranged a special press conference Thursday morning to explain their opposition to the proposed relocation of Stonewall Jackson Memorial Hospital in Weston. Sister Francesca Lowis expressed, “We are not opposing them building, we are opposing the location.”
St. Joseph’s Hospital President Skip Gjolberg explained that SJMH submitted a Certificate Of Need (CON) application to relocate their hospital from its current site to a plot of land they acquired near Stonewall Plaza on Staunton Drive in Weston. The newly proposed site is actually the second piece of property SJMH has purchased over the past couple decades with the intention of relocation.
St. Joseph’s Board of Trustees Chairman Dennis Xander described the necessity of the CON process for medical practices with an analogy and stated, “It wouldn’t make any sense to have two electric companies each put wires down the same street. There’s some things that should be regulated so you don’t waste money by having duplication of services.” And that’s where St. Joseph’s opposition comes into play.
According to Gjolberg, once a facility files an application for a new CON, there’s a period of time that anyone opposing the project may submit their formal opposition. “Today, we are submitting an opposition to them building that hospital at that particular site where they want to build. We don’t oppose them building a new hospital, but that particular site puts them within 15 miles of St. Joe’s,” asserted Gjolberg.
St. Joseph’s President went on to describe the critical 15-mile distance by explaining that Congress created a category defining Critical Access Hospitals (CAH) back in the 90s when many rural hospitals were closing. Typically, facilities can only achieve this designation if there are no other hospitals located within 35 miles. However, St. Joseph’s was able to attain a mountainous terrain exemption, allowing them to achieve CAH status in 2014 despite being located closer than 35 miles to other existing hospitals. The mountainous terrain exemption narrows the gap to 15 miles, which effectively allowed St. Joseph’s Hospital to become a CAH despite currently being located 16.7 miles away from SJMH. If permitted to relocate to the proposed site right off I-79, SJMH would only be 11.8 miles away, “so that is too close,” according to Gjolberg.
Gaining CAH status at St. Joseph’s has reportedly resulted in a multitude of benefits that led to the hospital being acquired by WVU Medicine, such as attracting more physicians offering a wider range of care for patients and the community, becoming a more competitive employer that can offer better pay and benefits to its employees, and simply becoming more financially stable and a larger contributor to the community as a whole. “Being granted Critical Access status was the lifeline that saved St. Joseph’s,” Xander emphasized. “Had it not been for Critical Access, we wouldn’t be here today.”
“As long as no other hospital comes within 15 miles of us, our Critical Access status is sound and safe. If they get closer than that, then we end up losing that status,” said Gjolberg. It was not difficult to comprehend St. Joseph’s opposition to losing CAH status when Gjolberg expressed, “It will cost us millions of dollars a year.” Xander elaborated, “We would be back to where we were in 2014-15, and that doesn’t bode well for our patients, our employees or the entire community. So, we’re not suggesting that they not build a hospital. We are just suggesting that they build it in a place that doesn’t infringe upon our ability to be a Critical Access Hospital and do the things that we’re doing now that seem to be so successful.”
With June 1 as the deadline to oppose SJMH’s CON for a new location, St. Joseph’s Hospital filed its opposition on Thursday, May 27. “It’s a fairness issue. I look at that and say, ‘That’s not fair.’ In good faith, we have been a Critical Access Hospital for 6 or 7 years. We’ve done well and thrived, and now you want to take that away from us by letting somebody else move in,” Xander expressed as he mentioned they would like to try to help change that rule down the road. He added, “We hope they rebuild on their same site. If they’re profitable and doing well where they are, rebuild that hospital or build another one on the same property.”
Gjolberg asserted that St. Joseph’s Hospital does not operate for profit and Xander noted, “We don’t exist to make money, we exist to meet the needs of the community.” Proud to be a longstanding local institution with approximately 430 employees, St. Joseph’s Hospital celebrated its 100th anniversary this year. Gjolberg expressed, “It’s our 100th anniversary this year and we want to be here another 100 years delivering your babies and taking care of your kids, your parents, and your siblings.” Xander added, “And providing really good quality jobs in the county.”
The Record Delta reached out to Mon Health System’s SJMH following St. Joseph’s Thursday announcement and their administrators were eager to provide their take on the situation regarding the CON application filed on April 26.
Mon Health President and CEO David Goldberg explained that SJMH purchased the second 17-acre parcel of land located right off Route 33 in 2017 as an alternative site for the potential replacement of their existing hospital. “This has not been a surprise or a secret that we bought the two parcels of land to eventually replace Stonewall Jackson Memorial Hospital closer to the interstate to improve access for the residents of greater Lewis County and some of the bordering areas,” Goldberg stated.
“We know St. Joe’s has every right to request a hearing and clarification of the application. We will work through the process and are glad to do it,” Goldberg stated. “Nothing here has anything to do with St. Joe’s from our perspective. It all has to do with decades of wanting to plan to replace Stonewall Jackson Memorial Hospital and we’re doing what we said we would do. We are not looking to cause a negative impact.”
Goldberg further elaborated that the distance from St. Joseph’s Hospital was not a concern they had when pursing a CON for the new location. “We own this land. We bought the land. This is where we have always planned to move the hospital. That’s what we are doing. This is not a surprise. What we said we would do, we are doing,” he emphasized.
According to Goldberg, SJMH chose to pursue building on the parcel of land near Stonewall Plaza as opposed to the originally purchased property on the mountain behind Marketplace Plaza because it is flat, already has some utilities built into it and would be less costly. “We filed our Certificate Of Need and the state will decide,” Goldberg expressed. “We’re looking at what is in the best interest of Stonewall. We are not looking to cause a negative impact on anybody, but we’ve squirreled away more than $30 million over the decades to replace it… It’s an outstanding quality care deliverer to the community and now it needs a more modern building to today’s standards.”
“We are looking forward to giving the people of Lewis County the facility they deserve,” Goldberg stated of SJMH’s plan to build a new 29-bed modern hospital and have it in operation within approximately 3 years following CON approval.
“We are excited about the opportunity to continue what this institution has been planning for decades. We are excited to go through the process and see it to resolution,” expressed SJMH Chief Administrative Officer Kevin Stalnaker. “There’s a great deal of excitement to see a modern facility versus something that was built and planned in the 1960s.”
Healthcare has changed dramatically since SJMH was built and the focus has shifted to more of an outpatient model, so they are reportedly responding to that situation. “SJMH has several decades of focus on community focused care, as does St. Joe’s and all other hospitals in our state, and I do believe we can collaborate for the betterment of access. I’m hoping rational minds will prevail,” concluded Goldberg.
The WV Health Care Authority will reportedly weigh all the facts over the next couple months and will likely hold a hearing if necessary sometime by September to determine the fate of both hospitals. Stay tuned for developments as the story unfolds.