By Timothy Cox
COLDWATER -- Building a small, emergency room-based hospital in or near Celina apparently will be a priority of a strategic plan being developed by Mercer Health.
A Celina hospital would help Mercer Health capture more market share in the county's population center and give it a chance to tap into a federal funding program. Nothing in the developing plan, officials say, would jeopardize the future of the existing hospital in Coldwater.
Mercer Health is the corporate name of Mercer County Community Hospital and all its related entities.
Gossip has been swirling this week, especially among government and community leaders, that the hospital plans to build a small, specialized hospital just east of the city.
Terrance Padden, Mercer Health's CEO, during an interview this week to discuss his first year at the helm of the hospital, was asked about the local rumors. He acknowledged the scuttlebutt, but denied any firm building plans close at hand and offered a cryptic answer. "A good management team always develops options for their boards to consider," Padden said. "It's not a lie to say we're looking at ways to expand services into Celina."
While emphasizing that no firm plans are in place to build a facility in Celina, Padden said the issue is a recurring theme in talks with staff members, doctors, community groups and civic leaders. Those same groups are helping to craft a formal strategic plan Padden hopes to offer Mercer health's board of governors and board of trustees for their approval in the coming months.
"A vision is something you think you want to do ... One of those visions is an outreach facility that has more complete services than we have now," Padden said. "There is no formalized plan ... we're just developing a vision."
Independent, anonymous sources familiar with internal talks, say Mercer Health officials envision a small, likely 15 bed or less, facility specializing in short-term trauma care. A tract of farmland east of Celina has been targeted by Mercer Health officials as the likely site of any development, the sources say.
Padden downplayed the apparent certainty of the plan. Looking at available land is part of good planning and researching, he said. Similarly, hospital officials also have sought traffic study numbers from the city engineering office in developing their plans.
Branching out further from its Coldwater base seems a natural next step for Mercer Health, Padden said. The existing hospital is full with the recent addition of a sleep disorder laboratory, and the Community Medical Center in Celina also is at capacity, he said.
No matter what happens, the hospital, or "mother ship," as Padden calls it, will remain the central focus of Mercer Health. Currently, internal committees are studying ways to improve the hospital's emergency room service and considering whether the hospital could run a meals-on-wheels program, among other improvements, Padden said.
Should Mercer Health officials opt to pursue a building plan in Celina, it could pave the way to more federal funding. As part of the strategic planning process, board members for months have been discussing a federal program aimed at assisting critical access hospitals. As defined by law, critical access hospitals are small, rural hospitals that meet other criteria.
The existing hospital meets most of the criteria, except it has too many beds. A smaller hospital run by the same organization presumably would qualify for the critical access status.
Based on recent financial data, hospital studies have shown Mercer Health would have improved its bottom line by $2.8 million if it was considered a critical access facility. The program is aimed at supporting rural general hospitals, of which 300 have closed in recent years.
That federal funding also is tied to building a facility that employs "green concepts," or energy conservation features, such as rooftop solar panels.
While the Celina venture appears to be a cornerstone of Mercer Health's pending strategic plan, Padden said he hopes to continue to build on the successes the hospital has seen during his first year.
Business volumes have been higher than ever the past year as the hospital has continually expanded its services. The program Padden said he is proudest of is the Neighborhood Nurse program that sends a nurse into local communities to conduct health screenings. A handful of patients at each clinic end up being referred to their doctors, Padden said.
"It's preventive health care at its greatest," he said.
The organization also took on its new corporate name, Mercer Health, during the past year, and faced another round of flooding recently at the Community Medical Center.
It was the community-wide sandbagging effort at the medical center that Padden said was his proudest moment of his first year. An array of residents, doctors, hospital board members, government officials, school students and scouting organizations pitched in to spare the facility from any damage.
The volunteer effort proved the community cares about Mercer Health and protecting its place in the community, Padden said.