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Key vote Aug. 24; construction could start in matter of weeks

SANTA ROSA – Nine years after its first proposal, Sutter Health is near the final go-ahead for a new hospital that will replace services at the aged Chanate facility.

The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors last week unanimously agreed the Sacramento-based health giant’s proposal was in line with the 1996 Health Care Access Agreement – the last significant hurdle in the process save for a final vote Aug. 24. That vote could be included as a consent agenda item, which would involve little if any debate.

Update

"Sonoma County OKs new Sutter hospital" --- Aug. 24, 2010

“The big day is Tuesday,” Sutter spokeswoman Lisa Amador said. “I think we’re pretty well set up. We believe the straw vote of 5-0 on both the environmental impact review and land use and the Health Care Access Agreement is quite encouraging, and (the board’s) statements have been very supportive of the project.”

Earlier, the board unanimously approved Sutter’s environmental impact review and land use permits to allow the new $284 million hospital to be built next to the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts.

Pending final approval, Sutter said it will immediately begin pulling permits for construction to start by Oct. 1, Ms. Amador said. In order to meet the state-mandated deadline for construction of Dec. 31 of this year, which will grant Sutter an extension on meeting seismic standards to December 2014, Sutter must reach certain construction milestones.

Construction will be carried out by Unger Construction of Sacramento and the architecture by HGA, also of Sacramento.

The first phase of construction will consist of “surcharging,” in which tons upon tons of dirt will be delivered to the site and compressed in the ground to lay the foundation. It may look “somewhat low key,” Ms. Amador said, but “this is a less offensive way for the earth, and it will sit there for six months so that we can stabilize the ground for an earthquake.”

Sutter also said more than 1,500 jobs “will be created and maintained during the planning, design and construction of the new hospital,” with an emphasis to hire and contract locally wherever possible. Currently, 11 local businesses and firms are involved in the planning and construction process, and more than $3 million has been allocated just for inspection and testing by county agencies. Another $30 million has been allocated for other medical and building equipment, Ms. Amador said.

The fate of the new hospital was contingent upon whether Sutter’s plan would live up to the 1996 county agreement that stems from Sutter’s operation of the formerly county-run Community Hospital.

Supervisors agreed that the level of care at the new hospital, with 82 beds and a possible expansion of 27 beds, would be more than adequate, despite repeated concerns surrounding the number of beds.

Critics of the plan, among them the California Nurses Association and Healdsburg District Hospital, have questioned the scale of the new hospital, saying services would be reduced with fewer beds for acute care and that the location could negatively impact other health care providers in the area while being too remote for those who rely on public transportation.

Sutter said it will assist the county in expanding public transportation access to the new location.

The new hospital has considerably fewer beds than the seismically unfit Chanate facility, which has 135 beds and has been described as “antiquated.”

But Sutter – and the board of supervisors – said bed counts is no longer the best measure of an efficient, accessible hospital.

“The acute care hospital of the future needs to be flexible to adjust to these rapid changes in health care,” Mike Cohill, senior vice president of Sutter Health, told the board last week. “We will see in the future – as we have in recent decades – more and more inpatients will become outpatients, leaving the inpatient beds to be occupied only by those with critical and chronic illnesses.”

The supervisors and Sutter have also repeatedly pointed out that Sutter should not bare sole responsibility in providing care for the uninsured and indigent populations.

In 2008, the most recent year available for statistics, Sutter’s patient base consisted of 40 percent Medicare patients and 29 percent Medi-Cal, according to data from the Office of State Health Planning and Development. That same year, the Chanate hospital had a 49 percent occupancy rate, the lowest among the three major hospitals in the county.