Wednesday, January 23, 2002

New Warren hospital proponents push ahead

Rural lifestyle and health care meet head-on

By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        TURTLECREEK TOWNSHIP — Middletown Regional Hospital's proposed move to fast-growing Warren County is pitting some residents' health-care needs against others' quiet country lifestyle.

        The planned relocation from McKnight Drive, a residential neighborhood in central Middletown, to rural Turtlecreek Township is Warren County's best shot at landing a hospital.

[photo] Diana Renner of Lebanon, with son Evan (left) and daughter Mikhaela, would like to have a closer hospital than Middletown Regional or Bethesda North, especially considering she'll soon have a third child.
(Michael Snyder photo)
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        It could shave 10 minutes off Lebanon residents' trip to an emergency room; and hospital leaders say the new location would give them room to provide better, more high-tech care.

        The demand for a hospital would seem obvious for the second-fastest growing of Ohio's 88 counties, which has 39 percent more residents than it had a decade ago.

        But the $125 million plan, which also includes related offices and industry on a 300-acre campus, has mobilized opposition from some Turtlecreek residents — a group that has been remarkably successful in holding off the growth that has occurred elsewhere in Warren County.

        Two years ago, they battled a $200 million mega-mall off Ohio 63 near Monroe that would have included 200 stores and employed up to 3,000 people. The Michigan-based developer shelved the plan after an outcry from residents and environmentalists.

        Neighbors are ready for another fight. They are determined to keep the new hospital — and related development and traffic — from invading their corner of the Tristate. The name of their group says it all: “Keep Out.”

        “In order to make it more convenient for a few people, we're going to make it more difficult for others,” said David Rawnsley, who lives about five miles from the site. “The tradeoff to me isn't good enough.”

        Warren County officials also have been critical of the proposed Greentree Road site, saying land at Interstate 75 interchanges to the north and south would be better suited for the hospital. Those areas already are dotted with restaurants, stores and small industries.

        The fight, however, won't be easy. Hospital officials are showing no sign of backing down, and Warren County zoning regulations allow construction of a hospital at the site.

        Already, Middletown Regional has options to buy land along Interstate 75 at Greentree and Union roads.

        Work could start next year and would be complete by 2006 if no last-minute delays surface, said hospital president Douglas McNeill.

        “I want to be clear. We need to move,” he said. “We believe Greentree is the best location. And in order to make it work, by the way, we need an interchange — unless a study comes along and convinces us differently.”

        A traffic engineering study focused on the need for a new I-75 exit ramp is to be completed mid-February.

Life without a hospital

        This isn't the first time a hospital has considered building in Warren — the only county in the eight-county Greater Cincinnati region without one.

        Cincinnati-based Jewish and Bethesda hospitals have toyed with the possibility in recent years. But all that has resulted from those plans has been Bethesda Warren County, an urgent-care center in Lebanon. Its services are limited to minor emergencies such as broken bones and earaches.

        The Middletown Regional Hospital proposal is different, said George Terwilleger of Hamilton Township, a former state representative.

        Middletown Regional, already the hospital of choice for many county residents, is the right suitor at the right time, he said.

        “They have the financial resources; they have the reputation ... and they have the leadership,” Mr. Terwilleger said.

        And Warren County — population 158,000 — has the patients.

        Some, however, think the county may not need a traditional hospital.

        “Are we going from having a need to having over-saturation?” asked John Harris, president of the Mason Landen Kings Chamber of Commerce.

        Where a full-service hospital once was high on any growing community's wish list, today's trend is toward medical centers — clusters of doctors' offices that can offer minor surgery and other services that used to be hospitals' domain.

        UC Physicians has broken ground on such a center on Cox Road in West Chester, right off Interstate 75. The Health Alliance of Greater Cincinnati also has been considering building a medical center on Mason-Montgomery in Mason.

        Cincinnati and Dayton, like the rest of Ohio, have seen more hospitals close than open in the past 15 years, as managed care and technology have reduced patient stays. Recent closings include Jewish and Bethesda Oak hospitals on Cincinnati's “Pill Hill” near the University of Cincinnati, and Mercy Hospital in Hamilton.

Filling a need

        Plenty of Warren County residents long for a full-fledged hospital.

        Diana Renner of Lebanon plans to drive about 30 minutes to Kettering Memorial, near Dayton, to have her third child in May.

        “It's quite a drive, particularly if you're in labor,” said her husband, David. “For emergency purposes or even for maternity, it would be nice to have someplace closer to home.”

        Hospital foes also are not considering that parents of disabled children now must rush to Children's Hospital in Cincinnati — 30 to 40 minutes away — for many medical emergencies, said Sonya Staffan, a member of Warren County's board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities.

        “If it were their child, how would they feel?” Mrs. Staffan said.

        Middletown Regional is promising more advanced services on the new campus. The hospital's cardiology and oncology departments will grow, hospital vice president Larry James said. Officials also envision a Level 2 trauma rating — which would put it behind only Cincinnati's University Hospital and Dayton's Miami Valley Hospital for treating car crash victims and other trauma cases.

        “This is more than just the cake. This is the icing on the cake,” said Mr. Terwilleger, an executive at Turtlecreek's Otterbein Homes, a community of 800 senior citizens.

        The new residents pouring into Warren County are generally affluent — the median household income is $57,800 — and used to a certain level of services. When Donna Crossley moved to Mason from a Virginia suburban county two years ago, she didn't realize she would be 25 minutes from a hospital.

        “I've never lived anywhere where there wasn't a hospital,” said Ms. Crossley, a law school student and the mother of two. “It didn't even occur to me to ask.”

        For now, she must wade through stop-and-go traffic on Mason-Montgomery Road to get to Bethesda North in Montgomery and would love having a closer alternative.

        Bob Gray, who keeps cows and chickens on his small farm near the proposed Middletown hospital site, insists he and his neighbors should not be steamrolled as health care alternatives are being considered.

        “Basically what it comes down to is I moved out here for a reason, and the reason is that it was a country, rural atmosphere,” he said. “That's why most of the people I know moved out here.”

        Even enthusiastic supporters of the project, such as Mr. Terwilleger and state Rep. Tom Raga of Deerfield Township, want to proceed with caution.

        “It's my hope that (Middletown Regional's) board of directors will weigh not only what's best for the hospital but what's best for the community” in picking a site, Mr. Raga said.

        “I think having a hospital in Warren County would be just a real gem for us,” he said. “... It really could prove to save lives.”


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