Inpatient care to end, ER to close at AGH Suburban in Bellevue

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Reaction to Thursday's announcement that Allegheny General Hospital Suburban Campus' emergency room will close and inpatient care will be discontinued, as much of the Bellevue facility is converted into a long-term acute care facility with an urgent care center and limited outpatient services, has ranged from disappointment to concern to gratitude.

"What's a hospital without an emergency room? People believe this is the beginning of the end of the hospital itself," said Linda Woshner, Bellevue Council vice president, who already had organized a town hall meeting for 6:30 tonight at Bellevue Elementary School for West Penn Allegheny Health Systems officials to meet with residents.

The town hall meeting will go ahead as scheduled, she said, although Mayor George Doscher said he was "very disappointed" that WPAHS officials made their decision before hearing from the community.

"There are generations of people who have volunteered down there, who have raised money to make sure the hospital got the best," said Mr. Doscher. "To turn around and for it not to be there anymore, that's a scary thing. It would have been nice if they would have taken the time to hear the public on this."

But Council President Kathy Coder said that "under the circumstances, I think it's a win-win for everybody. We're going to lose some things, but we're going to gain some things, too" such as the prospect of more jobs.

"There hasn't been a person who, after I explain what's happened and what it's going to be, isn't OK with it."

Patti Meissner, 52, of Orchard Avenue in Bellevue, is among those who wants to hear the explanation. Sitting in the Suburban emergency room Thursday, she was waiting while doctors tended to her elderly mother, who had experienced stroke-like symptoms earlier in the day.

"It would be a major problem for us, because my parents both are in their 80s and they both have health issues," Ms. Meissner said. "This is the first place we run to, because it's close to home and they feel comfortable here."

She said the care at Suburban is equal to that her family might receive in a larger hospital, but the proximity and the size make it perfect for the aging community.

"When we come in, they know us," she said. "If I come in with my husband, they'll ask how my parents are. It's got a small-hospital feel, like they know you and they're your friends. There's a real comfort to that."

"I'm very sad," said Jean Suwalski, 79, of nearby Fremont Avenue. "We already signed a petition at our high-rise and down at the senior center. We have to have some place to come. We don't want to go all the way to Allegheny General. There are bums laying around on the steps. My one doctor told me not to walk around down there."

Although Suburban hospital is licensed for 59 inpatient beds, Ms. Coder said the recent patient census had dipped into the 20s. She thinks that people might be more inclined to go to an urgent care center than an emergency room for minor ailments. "I think it could get busier."

WPAHS officials told Suburban staff and employees at an afternoon meeting Thursday of their plans to convert much of the Bellevue campus into a long-term acute care facility under a contract with LifeCare Hospitals.

LifeCare, which already operates 41 beds in the hospital, plans to expand its services to 50 beds, and may add another 50 skilled nursing or transitional care beds by year's end.

There also will be an urgent care center and physician offices on-site. The facility also will offer some service on an outpatient basis, such as radiology and imaging services, laboratory, dialysis, physical therapy, oncology and pediatric services.

State law prohibits a hospital from having an emergency department unless it has inpatient beds.

Health system officials said 86 percent of those seen in Suburban's emergency department had injuries or illnesses that could be treated in an urgent care setting. They also said that inpatient care represents only 4 percent of the hospital's volume.

In a statement, WPAHS said affected Suburban employees "will be encouraged to apply for one of the many new LifeCare positions or one of hundreds of open positions across the West Penn Allegheny Health System." Suburban has about 275 full-time staff.

As for many of Bellevue's 8,000 residents and those living in surrounding communities, the change is bound to be wrenching, said Mr. Doscher.

"We're used to small-town America where you go in and you get treated in a reasonable amount of time. I've taken relatives to AGH in the past and it takes a long time to get them in," he said.

When a financially strapped Suburban General Hospital affiliated with West Penn Hospital in 1994, the agreement stated that Suburban must remain an acute care hospital with its own medical staff, inpatient beds, operating room and emergency department. West Penn Allegheny officials said the agreement was no longer valid, as the Suburban campus now is considered part of Allegheny General Hospital, which merged with West Penn to create the West Penn Allegheny Health System.

Dawn Landis, chair of the Suburban Health Foundation, the fund-raising arm of Suburban hospital, said Thursday that the 1994 document "is a valid agreement, from what we are told." She said the 11-member foundation board and surviving members of the community advisory committee involved in the agreement have been meeting regularly with WPAHS officials.

"The leaders at West Penn Allegheny have been more than willing to spend great hours of their time with us, and they are willing to answer any and every question we've asked of them," she said.

"We're working together to make sure the Suburban General Hospital facility is still there and still serving the community not just next year, but 10 years from now and 20 years from now."


Steve Twedt: stwedt@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1963. Staff writer Dan Majors contributed.


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