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‘We are not abandoning Belleville’: 500 hear both sides at St. E’s hearing

About 500 people filled the Belle-Clair Fairground and Expo Center Tuesday evening for the second public hearing about St. Elizabeth’s Hospital’s plans to build a replacement hospital in O’Fallon.

“We are not abandoning Belleville,” said St. Elizabeth’s President and Chief Executive Officer Maryann Reese.

St. Elizabeth’s plans to maintain a Belleville campus featuring an urgent care facility that will be open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, other outpatient services like radiology, physical therapy and other physician offices, in addition to offices, including marketing, finance and IT. The hospital plans to convert the land after the hospital is razed into “something that complements Downtown Belleville,” Reese said.

“We are not, I repeat, are not, going to leave a hole in the ground or an abandoned building,” she said.

She also said they are not abandoning the poor and the hospital’s new location will be closer to two-thirds of St. Elizabeth’s patients.

Alexa Edwards, of Belleville, spoke against the hospital’s move. As a member of the St. Clair County Zoning Board, she said the board members unanimously agreed that the current location is the best way to serve the region.

“I think it would be a grave mistake to move St. Elizabeth’s from Belleville,” Edwards said.

Hospital officials passed out 300 yellow buttons that said “I Support St. E’s” for supporters to wear.

A crowd of about 600 people jammed the first public hearing in October at Lindenwood University. However, time constraints prevented dozens of people from publicly voicing their opinions.

St. Elizabeth’s Hospital is asking the state board for a certificate of need to allow it to close its 303-bed hospital in downtown Belleville and open a replacement hospital with 144 beds off Interstate 64 on North Greenmount Road. The cost of the project is $253 million. St. Elizabeth’s also plans to build an ambulatory care center adjacent to the new proposed hospital, making the total cost of the project about $300 million.

Supporters of the project have said the O’Fallon location will be easier for more patients to access. However, those who oppose the project have accused the hospital of abandoning Belleville where it has operated almost 140 years.

Darnell Metts, who said he lives on the East St. Louis/Washington Park area, supports the move for ease of highway access. He said it would be easier to access for residents from where he lives, as well as people from Brooklyn. “My brother was a patient there and they took excellent care of him.”

However another East St. Louis resident, Aurphey Campbell, said the move to O’Fallon would be more difficult for residents of East St. Louis, Brooklyn, Washington Park and Alorton. “This is a very big burden transportation wise,” he said. “It’s going to be extremely hard.”

Rick Ortiz, local business owner, said family members received excellent care at St. Elizabeth’s. “I agree that they deserve a 21st-century facility and I would hope that the 21st-century facility would be built right here in Belleville,” he said.

Linda Mehochko, of New Baden, supported the move because she said there is no good way to travel from New Baden to downtown Belleville. She mentioned two-lane roads and railroad tracks, which she called barriers when trying to access excellent medical care from the hospital. “It is time for St. Elizabeth’s to move forward to give the entire region that care,” she said. “In O’Fallon on Interstate 64 is the best place for the replacement hospital.”

Tom Pour, Belleville fire chief, opposed the move. If the emergency medical services from the Belleville Fire Department, one of three full-time departments in St. Clair County, are transporting patients to O’Fallon, there will be a shortage of ambulances, he said. “To take the hospital away is going to put us in dire straits.”

Debra Owens, a recent St. Elizabeth’s patient, said her care was extraordinary when she recently was treated for chest pains but the hospital facilities were outdated. She wants the hospital to move, so it can offer more modern facilities. She said the doorways were so small that patient beds could not fit through unless both railings were down. “At one point it was easier just to walk from the bed into the hallway — not much privacy there.” She also said the patient bathrooms were small and there was poor orientation for visitors.

Donna Dougherty, of Belleville, spoke against the hospital’s plans to move. She said the best thing St. Elizabeth’s has going for it is an urban Catholic hospital. “Belleville has robust public transportation and lots of patients take buses or Metro Link to access the hospital.”

The hearing was scheduled to end at 6:30 p.m. However, people spoke until 6:55 p.m., when a hearing organizer asked if any more people opposed to the hospital’s plans had signed up to speak. No one came forward, and the hearing ended.

The state board is scheduled to hear St. Elizabeth’s proposal at its Dec. 16 meeting in Bolingbrook.