Forward Thinking - New Cutting-Edge Health Campus
Health care services for Southwest Florida are about to take a quantum leap. The Lee County industry leader, now known as Lee Health, is poised to open a brand-new $140 million medical campus in Estero on Coconut Road, meaning more options and convenience for a growing number of patients between Naples and Fort Myers. And those facilities, due to be open by Spring 2019, will be only a start in that immediate area. The steps forward will not come without competition and controversy—no stranger to health care projects in our area.
PLANS AND PROPOSALS
With the 31-acre campus, consisting of a 24/7 emergency department and Lee Health’s largest outpatient service center, well under way, Lee Health came forward with plans for a whole new 82-bed hospital anchoring the Estero site. Lee Health previously filed for a Certificate of Need (CON) for a hospital in Estero in 2013, which was denied by the state.
Nashville-based HCA (Hospital Corporation of America) filed initial paperwork with state regulators for a hospital at an unspecified location in the county and later narrowed it to somewhere in Estero. Lee Health filed again for a CON.
HCA, the national giant whose 46 Florida hospitals include facilities as close as Sarasota, Englewood and Port Charlotte, proposes a hospital of 80 beds, with 10 dedicated to inpatient psychiatric care. Early news coverage featured HCA citing a need for choice in a Lee Health-dominated marketplace, with Lee Health countering with the need for stability in the wake of HCA selling its two Fort Myers hospitals in 2006.
The competing proposals were in the hands of state regulators as of this edition’s deadlines, and, by surprise, both rather than just one were approved, pending potential protests and appeals. Meanwhile, Naples-based NCH Healthcare struggled in vain to win Estero leaders’ support for medical services including a 24/7 emergency room a stone’s throw away. So, NCH moved slightly south, still on U.S. Highway 41, to within the city limits of Bonita
Springs, with its plans for 24/7 emergency and other services about one-fourth the size and cost of the Lee Health campus. The NCH site is next to Diamond Oaks Village and across Highway 41 from Angelina’s Ristorante.
Lee Health and NCH plan to continue their existing joint venture walk-in clinic, The Bonita Community Health Center. But what Lee Health plans to unveil for patients and their families merits a hard look now, on its own.
LEE HEALTH MOVES FORWARD
The accent is on community. Lee Health and Village of Estero officials stress that the community’s priorities have been front and center from the very first planning stages. What is coming out of the ground now is what the public wants, say Lee Health officials who make clear that connecting a hospital of up to five stories is a matter of “when,” not “if.” An estimated 10,000 truckloads of fill dirt make sure the hospital would meet flood elevation rules.
Meanwhile, the ongoing goal is a user-friendly community center aimed at proactive health care to keep people out of the emergency room and hospital. Examples: A Healthy Life Center with physician lectures, healthy cooking lessons, and yoga; trails suitable for walking, bicycling and community races; a covered pavilion for a farmers market, as well as concerts; and a pharmacy—part of the main 163,000-square-foot building housing the ER, labs and doctors’ offices—open to the public.
No wonder Estero Mayor Jim Boesch, upon getting his first look inside the center still under construction in March, called the campus “a great asset.” It will get even greater when the Healthy Life Center, now based at the Coconut Point shopping center, moves in. That center features wellness education screenings and access to Lee Health offerings. There even will be an ambulance substation, with sleeping quarters for three EMTs. Consider the impact on jobs. The center will open with 250 employees, including 230 new hires.
The net effect, Lee Health says, will be “a comprehensive health and wellness destination ... offering a broad array of medical services across the continuum of care.” The facility will include: a day surgery center, diagnostic imaging, test laboratories, a breast health center (screening and diagnostic mammography—2D and 3D), ultrasound, stereotactic breast biopsy, and a DEXA (dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry) machine for bone densitometry scans, cardiac testing and rehabilitation services. Lee Health–Coconut Point will also include nine short-stay (up to 24 hours) observation and recovery beds, and medical offices for primary and specialty care physicians, including some who are based at Golisano Children’s Hospital in Fort Myers.
And one more detail: There are plans for soothing live piano music in the main lobby.
All of the “new” has a deep background, as nonprofit Lee Memorial Health System opened its first hospital more than a century ago, in 1916. Lee Health now has grown to four acute care hospitals and two specialty hospitals, plus a network of outpatient centers, walk-in medical centers, primary care and specialty physician practices and more.
Dr. Rick Palmon, president of the Lee County Medical Society, says: “With the opening of Lee Health at Coconut Point, people living in south Lee County and North Naples will have access to quality health care closer to home ... South Lee county has been medically underserved with the ongoing population and construction boom that has occurred since the end of the recession.
“Lee County physicians are excited about the state-of-the-art facilities, which will be completing construction soon. Estero and Bonita residents will not have to make the long drive up to existing facilities which will make health care more convenient and can be a lifesaver for emergency visits.”
Dr. Larry Antonucci, president and CEO of Lee Health, sums up the big picture: “For more than 100 years, Lee Health has been caring for our community, and we have always evolved and expanded to meet the health care needs of people throughout Southwest Florida. South Lee County is one of the fastest growing regions of Southwest Florida, and we recognized years ago the need to improve, increase and enhance access to care. Lee Health-Coconut Point, in its current plan as a health and wellness destination with its 24/7 emergency services, surgery center, diagnostic imaging and other ancillary services, and medical complex for primary and specialty care physicians, or with the proposed hospital tower that we have applied for, will provide needed access to care within the community.”
What comes next, after the center opens and the hospital situation is resolved? What will Lee Health do with the nearly 40 acres it bought next door, on U.S. Highway 41 just north of Coconut Road? Maybe a residential senior living center?
Lee Health says: “... we have no specific development plans for the land we just purchased. We will begin considering options after Lee Health-Coconut Point is completed and in operation, as that facility has additional capacity, and we will be better able to review the demand for services.
“We know over time we will develop a vision for the highest and best use of the property—based on what the community says they want and need, and based on the notion of keeping people healthy and active ... we do know that it will build on the innovation of Lee Health-Coconut Point and incorporate the same design principles. And, just as we did with Lee Health-Coconut Point, we will solicit comments and suggestions from the community on services they would like us to consider in our plan for the property.”
Stay tuned for that as well as developments at Coconut Point, where Lee Health teams plan to start moving in this winter and open in time for the peak-season demands come spring.
Jeff Lytle is the retired editorial page editor and TV host from the Naples Daily News. He now lives in Bonita Springs.