State regulators gave their approval Tuesday for St. Elizabeth’s Hospital to move from Belleville to O’Fallon.
The state’s Health Facilities and Services Review Board approved the project by an 8-0 vote.
The board’s approval will allow St. Elizabeth’s to close its 60-year-old, 303-bed hospital in downtown Belleville and open a replacement 144-bed hospital seven miles away off Interstate 64 on North Green Mount Road. The cost of the project is $253 million.
Supporters of the move hugged and high-fived each other after the vote. Opponents filed out of the meeting room after the vote and boarded a charter bus back to Belleville.
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The board’s approval includes a condition: St. Elizabeth’s will be required to keep about 200 employees in Belleville for at least two years.
The jobs requirement wasn’t much consolation to Belleville Mayor Mark Eckert, who opposed the move and said the city will consider a legal appeal.
“There are some options we still have in front of us,” Eckert said. “We’re going to talk with our legal team and discuss what our next step might be.”
St. Elizabeth’s CEO Maryann Reese said after the meeting, “We are looking forward to the future. We are looking forward to working with all of the community, including Belleville. Belleville is just as important to us as the rest of our ministry.”
A parade of people from the metro-east appeared before the review board to speak both for and against St. Elizabeth’s application.
More than 40 people signed up to speak before the board, which was meeting for the second time this year to consider St. Elizabeth’s request to move. At the board’s meeting in January, the project did not receive enough votes for passage.
In January, the board turned down the proposal by a 4-1 vote with only five of the eight board members in attendance. Under Illinois law, a hospital project must receive five “yes” votes to receive approval, called a certificate of need. Eight of the nine board members were in attendance Tuesday, including newly-appointed member J. Bradley Burzinski. Board member Deanna Demuzio was absent.
Stephanie Dorris, a member of an opposition group called Oppose the Move, said she was disappointed with the board’s vote. “We thought the process was going to work for us,” Dorris said.
Eckert said the board got it wrong.
“It seems like they just rewarded St. Elizabeth’s for all of the years they haven’t reinvested, all of the years they haven’t kept up or properly managed the hospital,” Eckert said. “They have not reinvested in this hospital, and kept it new, for the better part of the last 20 years. They’ve let it go.”
Memorial Hospital in Belleville provided the following prepared statement after the meeting: “While we are disappointed by (the) decision, our commitment to the metro-east community is unwavering. We have already begun to evaluate the needs at both our Belleville and Shiloh facilities, given this approval. We look forward to continuing to serve our patients now and in the future.”
Memorial Hospital is building a satellite campus on Cross Street in Shiloh. It’s expected to be completed by spring 2016.
St. Elizabeth’s replacement hospital is expected to be completed by December 2017.
Population in most need
Much of the debate over the new hospital has centered on access for low-income people. St. Elizabeth’s officials presented a chart showing that while an O’Fallon hospital would add 2 minutes of driving time from some locations in East St. Louis, it would shave 6 minutes from other parts of the city. In addition, the drive would be 5 minutes closer from Washington Park, 6 minutes less from Brooklyn and 7 minutes closer from Caseyville.
During a question-and-answer session with board members, Claire Ranalli, legal counsel representing St. Elizabeth’s application, said the hospital was actually moving closer to East St. Louis. Opponents in attendance responded to this remark with a collective groan.
Belleville Police Chief William Clay opposed moving St. Elizabeth’s out of downtown Belleville, saying it would be harmful to low-income residents. He said 90 percent of the residents in the western communities in the metro-east have minorities who would suffer if the hospital moves.
St. Elizabeth’s is “not Walmart or Cracker Barrel,” it’s a non-profit hospital whose leaders have failed to reinvest in the facility, he said. Clay said the board must be the voice for disenfranchised, low-income residents.
“I urge you to be that voice,” he said. “Do not allow this non-profit hospital to flee from those with the greatest needs in pursuit of the most affluent and well-assured.”
What board members said
Board member Philip Bradley, who said he attended both public hearings held in Belleville, said, “it’s clear that there is very strong feelings on both sides.”
Bradley said it was one of the toughest votes he’s taken as a board member. He questioned whether opponents were seeing the big picture.
“It’s an argument between the past and the future,” he said.
Board member James Burden said it’s “a very difficult decision” as he cast a reluctant “yes” vote.
Board member Alan Greiman said he had “respect” for the dedication the opponents of the project have shown.
Board member John Hayes said, “All different constituents will be served by this new facility,” including military members stationed at Scott Air Force Base.
Board chairwoman Kathryn Olson said she voted in favor of the project because it’s a replacement hospital and St. Elizabeth’s will maintain some services in downtown Belleville.
St. Elizabeth’s makes case
In presenting the case for the hospital, Reese said, “We care for all people, but we do and always will have a special place in our heart for the poor and vulnerable.”
Sister Jomary Trstensky with HSHS told the board, “Our replacement hospital location will provide better access to care for all people.”
Bradley asked hospital officials whether 200 jobs would remain in Belleville for at least two years. HSHS President Mary Starmann-Harrison said, “We would as long as services on that campus are being used.”
Following her response, Bradley asked the same question again, seeking stronger “assurance.”
Olson then chimed in, saying it wouldn’t be fair to require a hospital to have employees that aren’t servicing patients.
Burden said he didn’t see a very long future for the hospital in its present location. “This bothers me ... if you aren’t able to get an opportunity to move, I don’t think you are going to be in business very long,” he said.
Review board member Dale Galassie made the amendment that requires St. Elizabeth’s to keep 200 jobs in Belleville for two years. The amendment passed with five “yes” votes and three “no” votes.
Opponents out in force
During public comments, opponent Al Wunderlich with the Franklin Neighborhood Association in Belleville said, “The impact on Belleville’s low-income population would be devastating.”
More than two dozen opponents in the gallery sported red T-shirts that said: “No joy — for those left behind, keep St. Elizabeth’s in Belleville.” Supporters of the project wore yellow “Support St. E’s” buttons.
Kevin Hutchinson, director of the St. Clair County Health Department, said, “We remain concerned about the impact of this project on safety and services.” However, he said the health department remained neutral.
Eckert told the board that a move “would greatly hurt Belleville.”
A letter from East St. Louis mayor-elect Emeka Jackson-Hicks, read to the board, said the move would “make a greater challenge for our citizens” in getting access to healthcare.
Also speaking against the move was Mark Turner, president and CEO of Memorial Hospital in Belleville, and Ruth Holmes, administrator of Memorial Hospital East.
Turner and Holmes both said building a hospital 5 minutes away from Memorial Hospital East would be a duplication of services.
Supporters convince board
Supporters included metro-east developer Darwin Miles, who told the board, “The Missouri hospitals would love your denial.”
City leaders from Highland and Breese, where owner HSHS also has hospitals, also spoke in favor of the St. Elizabeth’s proposal.
Highland City Manager Mark Latham said relocating St. Elizabeth’s to O’Fallon will put it closer to its community hospitals in Highland and Breese.
It currently takes about 45 minutes to transfer a critical patient from St. Joseph’s in Highland to St. Elizabeth’s in Belleville, Latham said. The O’Fallon site would make that drive shorter for patients.
“Fifteen minutes can mean the difference between life and death,” he said. “We believe a modern St. Elizabeth’s will mean better care. We support the project. “
Similar remarks were provided by Breese Mayor Charlie Hilmes.
One of the points made frequently by critics was that it would be hard on people from East St. Louis, which lost St. Mary’s Hospital. But one resident, Devon Moody-Graham, told the board, “My family will follow the hospital wherever it goes.
She added, “St. Elizabeth’s is a great hospital that provides great care. The physical building should mimic that same thing. I’m looking forward to bigger rooms and a more modern state of the art hospital.”
Bishop Geoff Dudley with New Life in Christ Interdenominational Church in Lebanon spoke in support of the move. “Poor and disadvantaged people also live in the suburbs,” he said. “This plan is an answer to our prayers.”
O’Fallon Police Chief Eric Van Hook also spoke in favor of the project and the need for a hospital in O’Fallon.
Adjacent to the new hospital, St. Elizabeth’s also plans to build a $34 million ambulatory care center, which also was approved by the state board during Tuesday’s meeting. .
Eckert said he’s thankful for many Belleville supporters who helped oppose the hospital’s move.