FLORENCE — Since RegionalCare Hospital Partners purchased Eliza Coffee Memorial Hospital in 2010, the goal has been to build a new hospital to replace the aging facility.

But now, with a lengthy delay expected before approval of that project is resolved, officials said investments in equipment and maintenance of ECM have been and will continue to be a priority.

The state certificate of need board granted RegionalCare approval in June to build a 280-bed hospital on a 25-acre site in east Florence, but Sheffield’s Helen Keller Hospital filed a notice of its intent to appeal that decision last week. RegionalCare officials said that process could take up to two years, making it 2015 before the company could begin the process of building a new hospital.

“We have to make sure we have a safe environment for patients,” said Jeff Atwood, vice president of communication for RegionalCare. “Given the challenges of this facility, we are going to do everything we can to maintain an environment that is pleasant, clean, safe and welcoming.”

Since RegionalCare purchased ECM, the message has been consistent: ECM is old, outdated, landlocked and difficult to navigate. That is the platform on which the private hospital company built its case for a new hospital. Add to that the years of minimal investment by the previous owner, Coffee Health Group, because of financial hardship, you get a facility with eyesores and deficiencies, Atwood said.

RegionalCare has made more than $20 million in capital equipment investments since 2010 and has spent $8.1 million since the beginning of 2012, according to a document provided by the hospital. That includes $2 million for a DaVinci Robotic Surgery system, more than $400,000 to create a radiology room within the emergency department, $200,000 for new equipment for ECM’s eight-room sleep center and $25,000 in cardiac surgery equipment to the expanded open heart surgery program. Much of the new equipment will be moved to the new hospital, but the $4 million spent on repairs and maintenance at ECM since 2012 can’t be moved. Officials said that is just part of their commitment to care for patients close to home.

“We will continue to invest in both new equipment, and repairs and maintenance as needed to meet and exceed our patients’ expectations,” ECM CEO Russell Pigg said. “Our patients’ safety, quality of care and satisfaction remain a top priority throughout the appeal, and then construction periods.”

Renovations are underway in the ECM labor and delivery department, and a renovation of the west wing of the fifth floor is planned for later this year.

The west wing of the sixth floor, fourth floor bathrooms and patient and waiting areas of the emergency department were renovated last year.

At the same time, Helen Keller Hospital CEO Doug Arnold said the reason for his hospital’s appeal of the 280-bed facility is to ensure its financial stability and its ability to invest in equipment and maintenance.

Arnold said the 280-bed hospital is larger than what is needed or allowed in Lauderdale County.

A 233-bed hospital is the right size, Arnold said. Anything larger threatens access to care for people in Colbert County.

“This is the only route we could go since we’ve already been through the (administrative law judge) hearing process,” Arnold said about the decision to appeal the hospital approval. “I feel like this is the only alternative we have.”

It’s expensive to navigate the Alabama Certificate of Need process, but both sides said it is best for their patients that they continue this fight.

“We are having to invest a significant amount of resources in this process and, as a result of the appeal brought by Helen Keller, there will be additional resources allocated,” Atwood said. “It would be our preference to be able to spend those dollars on things that improve patient care immediately, but we realize this is part of the process and will budget accordingly.”

Jennifer Edwards can be reached at 256-740-5754 or jennifer.edwards@Times Daily.com.

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Jennifer Edwards can be reached at 256-740-5754 or jennifer.edwards@Times Daily.com.

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