CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Gov. Jim Justice and officials from West Virginia University tried to calm concern over health care needs in the Wheeling area.
The university and Justice laid out their road map Monday for short- and long-term commitments to preserving quality health care for the Upper Ohio Valley.
The gathering at Wheeling Hospital followed the abrupt announcement last week of plans by Alecto Healthcare to close the Ohio Valley Medical Center and Eastern Ohio Regional Hospital in October, and the emergency room there is already shut down.
“Now that the hospitals are closing or are already closed, employees are realizing some of the finality and are starting to come over. We’ve got lots of jobs and we want to hire all of them for the long-term,” said WVU Medicine CEO Albert Wright.
Wright said WVU Medicine already hired about 200 of the displaced Alecto workers and a couple hundred more are in the hiring process. He expected in the long-term all could be hired with more jobs added.
Preserving jobs was one of three key points Wright spoke of while addressing the current situation. The other points were emergency care and behavioral health care.
To address the need for emergency care, Wright said OVMC and its Ohio facility were handling about 40 ER visits a day or roughly 15,000 a year. WVU applied for a certificate of need to expand emergency care at Reynolds Memorial Hospital, which would handle another 15,000 visits annually with additional care beds. Additionally, Wright indicated there needs to be an emphasis on separation of real emergencies from those who just need to see a doctor.
“We need to figure out how to split out people who have true emergencies versus those who need to be seen, but maybe not in emergency fashion,” he said.
The solution, at least in part, will be opening a 15-bed “Fast Track” unit at Wheeling Hospital to get patients in and out quicker. WVU also committed to opening three urgent care centers at other area hospitals where the university has a presence.
But, the biggest worry for Wright was behavioral health.
“That’s the one that causes me to lose sleep,” he said.
WVU will address the immediate needs with tele-psychiatry and eventually add 25 beds at Wheeling Hospital and 25 beds at Reynolds Memorial.
“We can do it with existing physical plant by moving some units around. The biggest challenge in behavioral health is that you have to make sure they are safe for staff and patients. These are typically locked down units, so we have to make some alterations and that takes time,” he said.
While Wright laid out the plans for logistics, WVU President Gordon Gee assured the university was committed to the region.
“We really want to make certain that everyone in this part of the state understands West Virginia University is committed, loyal and a partner to this community,” Gee said.
Justice was less than forgiving of how the crises was created. According to Justice and Wright, there had been negotiations with Alecto Healthcare to lease the two behavioral units at OVMC right up until the Friday before Labor Day. Wright said they were assured a proposal for the lease would be coming the day after the Labor Day weekend, but instead came an announcement of the immediate closure of the ER and shutdown of the entire hospital.
“I hate to say this, but a full-blown crises was created by out-of-state interests that could give a hoot about you,” Justice said.