Hospital systems face uphill fight in vying for Sussex emergency center

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Two Delaware hospital systems face a tough fight in seeking approval from the state to build a stand-alone emergency department in the center of Sussex County.

A state recommendation argues that there are enough emergency service facilities in the surrounding area.

Dover-based Bayhealth has proposed 11,000-square-foot emergency department with 10 emergency room bays, estimated to cost $15.5 million to $17.2 million. The location east of Harbeson would be part of a larger facility that includes diagnostic imaging, primary-care and specialty services.

Lewes-based Beebe Healthcare proposes a 14,000-square-foot emergency department with 21 beds in Georgetown, at an estimated cost of about $20 million.

The state Health Resources Board will make a decision on the proposals next month after failing to have a quorum at a July meeting.

The competing proposals mark a rare clash between two nonprofit hospital systems that in Delaware typically stay in their traditional territory. The lack of competition has been cited as a reason for the state’s high health care costs.

Bayhealth, of late, has been more aggressive, moving into the northern part of Beebe’s territory with a quarter of a billion dollar hospital and health campus on the Sussex County side of Milford.

Beebe’s stronghold is Coastal Sussex County, but has been eying inland areas, including Georgetown. Bayhealth has a similar vision.

The review committee does not believe population growth and traffic justify building a freestanding emergency department, according to its unfavorable recommendation last month.

In addition to hospitals in Seaford, Lewes and Milford, there are urgent-care and walk-in centers in the proposed areas, such as LA Red, walk-in centers, and the Veterans Affairs center. In addition, Nanticoke Memorial Hospital in Seaford has expressed its opposition to the proposals, arguing it would be greatly affected.

Extreme trauma cases are often airlifted to Christiana Hospital. The only free-standing emergency center in Delaware is in Middletown. The center is operated by Christiana Care.

Nanticoke, a health care system and hospital in western Sussex, is merging with merging with the Peninsula health care system in Salisbury, MD.

The committee also argued that the proposals do not align with Gov. John Carney’s initiative to reduce emergency department visits and health care costs.

Between October 2015 and September 2018, one-third of emergency department visits were defined as “non-emergent.” Non-emergent visits also cost 10 times more for emergency departments than they do for urgent-care centers and primary-care physicians.

The Health Resources Board is expected to make a decision Aug. 15. The panel could follow the committee’s recommendation, approve just one proposal, or approve both of them.

Decisions have been overridden in the past. Former Gov. Jack Markell pushed through a rehabilitation center in Middletown despite a rejection by regulators. Markell’s decision came at a time when Delaware was recovering from a steep recession.

Carney faces fewer economic pressures.

(Includes reporting from WHYY)

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