SANTA ROSA  - The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors unanimously voted to allow environmental review of Sutter's new hospital plan after airing concerns over the size of the project during a standing-room only workshop this morning. The board also asked that the health department continue its assessment of project and that leaders host more public meetings and workshops to allow for community involvement.


The resolution reached at the conclusion of the meeting this afternoon allows the permitting department to move forward with review of the hospital plans, which call for a 70-bed facility with room for expansion, a 28-bed physician medical center and nearby medical office building on a plot near the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts, though all would not be started at once.

At the same time, the county Department of Health and Human Services will continue to assess whether the 70-bed hospital will be large enough to meet current and future demand. Once the EIR is complete, the two departments will present their findings to supervisors for final approval.

Sutter Chief Executive Officer Mike Cohill reviewed the plan for the $176 million project during the opening of the meeting and addressed concerns detailed in a preliminary assessment report from the department of health. According to the report and comments made by county officials during the meeting, the reduced-size campus will open at capacity and will exceed capacity by 2014, but as a whole, the county would have the room to treat overflow patients in another local hospital.

"Overall the local hospitals will have adequate capacity for intensive care, emergency and other services," said Human Services Director Mary Maddux-Gonzalez.

"But the challenge will be in the redistribution. Different hospitals vary in their ability provide ICU services."

Mr. Cohill responded saying the report prepared in part through a consultant did not take into account other factors that will effect the need in the county, including the changing market share and growth of Kaiser Permanente, the implementation of a managed Medi-Cal system this fall that is projected to decrease inpatient need by 15 percent and the continued increase in preventative care and outpatient surgery.

He called the new campus a "baby and mother" focused hospital with a majority of beds for birthing and after care, though officials said those beds could be used for surgery and intensive are if they run out of room in those departments.

Community members testified on both sides of the issue during public comment, some applauding the project's job creation potential and others suggesting the new location will provide less access to low income patients. Local district hospital executives spoke out against the plan saying it would push overflow uninsured patients into their emergency rooms. Mr. Cohill pointed out that these hospital's are also currently well below capacity, reporting occupancy rates between 20 and 56.

Sutter is required to retrofit the Chanate campus or build a new hospital in order to meet state seismic deadlines and must begin construction by Dec. 31, 2010. Currently, the 120-bed hospital is operating at less than half capacity with invasive heart care, which will not be included at the new facility. The nonprofit hopes to finish the hospital by 2014.