Hospital upgrade in jeopardy

RRH considers pulling plug on new Emergency Department following changing city directives, delays, surprise costs

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Hospital upgrade in jeopardyRRH CEO Jim Suver (right) stands with Fred Hawkins on the site of a future hotel, which stands in the planned flight path of the hospital’s new helipad — Photo by Laura Austin

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Ridgecrest Regional Hospital, after years of effort and more than $2 million in expenditures, may not be able to move forward on its plan to expand and upgrade its Emergency Department.

The primary threat to completing the project, according to CEO Jim Suver, are the inconsistent policies and changing mandates emanating from City Hall — a concern echoed by many attempting to build, expand, improve or otherwise develop within city limits.

“Without the support of the city, I have to think about what will happen with this project if the current level of unpredictability continues,” said Suver.

“If we keep going, I’m not just putting the project at risk — I’m putting the hospital at risk. We have a budget and I cannot keep up with the new costs and requirements that can arise at any time for any reason.”

Several weeks ago IWV Economic Development Corp. Executive Director Scott O’Neil approached the city, bringing a slate of concerns that his organization and the Ridgecrest Area Association of Realtors had gathered from businesses and individuals frustrated by the seemingly unfriendly business practices hampering local developments.

O’Neil offered to work with stakeholders and city staff to develop a guidebook that would help disclose requirements up front to those investing time and resources into new developments, while also serving as a resource to ensure the fair and consistent application of policies on the part of staff.

City officials dismissed that offer at its March 20 council meeting, minimizing those concerns and stating that they were already being addressed.

The following week local business owners Rusty and Tina Warren went on record in the News Review, detailing their nightmarish account of abandoning a project on China Lake Boulevard after a $750,000 investment. The Warrens noted that costly delays, oversights and mistakes on the part of city staff contributed to their ultimately walking away from the development.

When these concerns were brought up again by members of the public at the April 3 council meeting, neither City Manager Ron Strand nor Mayor Peggy Breeden commented on the subject.

But concerns continue to mount outside of City Hall — with the most recent account relating to ongoing conflicts between RRH and the city.

Many of these unresolved complaints relate to the $32-million upgrade and expansion of the hospital’s Emergency Department.

This project addresses a need for additional capacity as well as a 2030 mandate to comply with state seismic requirements.

The ED overhaul will also include moving the hospital’s helipad — a decision that was influenced in part by resident complaints about noise and the impact the emergency helicopter has on surrounding neighborhoods. Proximity of the helipad to the new Emergency Department is critical for patient outcome.

Months after RRH worked with the city to overhaul the footprint of these operations, hospital officials were surprised to learn that a new four-story hotel was being authorized for the area inside that proposed flight pattern.

Early on in the project, RRH consultants informed the city about the risk of future structures blocking the helicopter’s flight path. A city official told consultants the city had an existing restriction limiting developments to 30 feet in height along the frontage of China Lake Boulevard, so there would be no interference with the plan.

Once RRH learned that restriction was 60 feet, not 30 feet, the hospital realized that flight path would be at risk. In an effort to work out a solution, hospital and city officials have been embroiled in correspondence and meetings trying to reconcile the hospital’s existing plans with the new development.

Suver noted that this is not the first time the city has attempted to impose requirements on the hospital, requiring RRH to absorb the costs and impacts regardless of whether it is the cause of the problem or the beneficiary of the improvement.

So far, hospital plans originally approved by the city have been discarded in favor of the needs dictated by an incoming developer, said Suver.

He remarked that this policy seems inconsistent with city requirements that the hospital absorb the costs of improving hospital land and surrounding property.

“We have had other issues with the city,” he said, noting that the Crisis Stabilization Unit and other improvement projects have also been held up or made more costly through inaction or changing requirements from the city.

“This Emergency Department project is serious trouble, and that has me concerned.”

Suver said that concern was validated by a seemingly hostile email written last Friday from Strand to a hospital employee. “The hospital needs to be more forthcoming with vital information concerning the new flight path,” Strand wrote.

He claimed that the city leadership had no knowledge of the hospital’s plans — which Suver notes were worked out under the advisement of city staff.

“This is a significant revelation and the dribbling of this information is very frustrating,” wrote Strand.

“These were friendly discussions between the hospital and its consultants and [Economic Development Director Gary Parsons],” said Suver. “We didn’t have any reason to believe we had to independently verify the information he gave us.

“This is part of the problem — depending on who you talk to, and when you talk to them, the answer changes. We had no idea that we couldn’t take information from the city at face value — until it was too late.”

Suver said he is frustrated by the city’s failure to honor its prior agreements.

“I am incredibly disappointed that the city is not supporting the provision of health care in our community by creating these obstacles. We are a small hospital in a remote community — I think our success depends on a partnership with the city,” said Suver.

In the absence of any clearly defined process, Suver said that he had hoped the city would at least offer flexibility in resolving the myriad challenges that continue to arise.

“I do not consider myself a developer — I run the local hospital. I depend on the knowledge and resources at the city to inform our plan,” he said.

“We have five different issues we have been consistently working,” said Suver, who estimated that he had spent $200,000 on staff, consultant and attorney compensation in the last year alone.

“Most of the issues have not been resolved — and some of them have gotten worse.”

The city is now requiring RRH to resubmit plans for the ED project, which had been approved two years ago.

Such a delay could result in the hospital losing the two years it has been waiting in the queue for the state architect’s office — further jeopardizing the hospital’s plan.

In hopes of salvaging the plan, Suver said that he and the members of his board have reached out to individual members of the council to determine whether there is a path forward that allows the hospital to complete its projects without compromising outcomes.

“There is an unwritten cost here, which I’m sure Rusty and Tina felt, and that is the emotional toll of believing you are operating in good faith with the support of your small, tight-knit community — and then finding out that when it comes to support from the city you serve, you are completely on your own.”

Story First Published: 2019-04-12