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[caption id="attachment_13546" align="alignleft" width="108" caption="Mike Cohill"][/caption]

Defends 70-bed facility as right size; project would mean 1,500 jobs

SANTA ROSA - Sutter Medical Center of Santa Rosa Chief Executive Mike Cohill is confident a proposed 70-bed hospital will be built on time and provide financial stability after more than $60 million in losses over the past six years.

In an interview with the Business Journal last week, the veteran hospital administrator said the project will create hundreds of jobs and revenue for the local construction industry that has been severely battered by the recession.

"The county wants us to build this hospital. We want to build this hospital, and I can not contemplate a condition that would keep that from happening. ... At the end of the day, what we are trying to do is meet our obligations with the county in the most cost-effective way we can," Mr. Cohill said.

[caption id="attachment_13375" align="alignright" width="288" caption="Mike Cohill is confident the 70-bed hospital will be built on time."][/caption]

In addition to filling its health care access obligations to the county, construction of a new hospital will create a considerable number of jobs in an industry drastically in need of work. The organization is required to rebuild according to a state mandate that all hospitals meet certain earthquake standards.

Though Sutter is not the only local health care organization that is building, officials estimate the project slated to break ground next September will add 1,500 jobs and about 1.5 million man hours.

Though some of the work must be completed by out-of-county hospital design experts, Sutter will use local materials whenever possible. Today 10 Sonoma County businesses are already working on the project.

"Using local labor is very much a policy of the organization, and as a practical consideration, local vendors know the codes and inspectors, and it will certainly help us reduce our carbon footprint," Mr. Cohill said.

As for current employees of the hospital, all working at the time of completion of the new hospital - expected some time in 2014 - will transfer to the new site, though that number could be less, or more, than the number working now.

"We are already operating a 70-bed hospital and have the staff for a 70-bed hospital, but I don't have a crystal ball. There could be changes between then and now."

The smaller size and focus on maternity in the new plan has been at the center of most criticism concerning Sutter's design, primarily from neighboring hospital leaders that fear a flood of uninsured patients.

Mr. Cohill did not deny the potential for a growth in need for inpatient beds from an aging population, but he said prevailing trends point to the opposite.

"More and more procedures are being done on an outpatient basis, and preventative care has become a huge focus," he said. "At the same time, technology continues to improve."

In response to recent criticisms about the drop in medical/surgery beds from 91 to 20, Mr. Cohill said, contrary to reports that the 135-bed hospital's current average use of those beds is about 40 a day, the actual number is much lower. As for using perinatal-designated beds for overflow, Sutter does it now and will in the new site if it's needed.

In June, the hospital reported a medical/surgery bed census - excluding invasive cardiology that will not be part of the new facility - of 29 patients. With 30 perinatal beds in the new hospital compared with 19 currently, Sutter anticipates being able to use them for medical/surgery overflow if needed. Sutter is expecting further decline in demand for medical/surgery beds with the implementation of Managed Medi-Cal expected later this year. In addition, it expects the trend toward more outpatient procedures to further lessen demand.

In addition to the main hospital, Sutter also plans to construct a 28-bed physician medical center, which would be a joint venture with Sutter Medical Foundation - North Bay providers. But the plan hinges on several factors, including whether Sutter will lift a spending freeze on projects other than those that are significantly under way or strictly mandated.

Mr. Cohill said unless that happens before groundbreaking, as both would need to begin at the same time, Sutter will have to pursue alternatives. The main building without the expansion or physician center will cost $176 million on its own.

The North Bay foundation, which now includes 80 physicians, is headquartered in a building across the highway from the future medical center and has been expanded and renovated during the past two years.

"We were kind of hedging our bets a little bit on the construction. We intentionally chose that location because of its proximity to the Wells Fargo site. We thought it could either be a transition site until the medical center opened, or plan B," he said.

If the physician medical center can not be constructed, Sutter would expand outpatient services in the medical office building.

The whole project plan is currently undergoing environmental review after which it will go back to the Board of Supervisors for final approval.

Mr. Cohill said that though Sutter is committed to building a modern and financially viable medical facility that serves the community and meets state seismic requirements, it is just one piece of the overallĀ  health care picture.

"Though we would like to say we can, we are not here to solve all of the health care problems of the county."