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Task Force Reviews Hospital's Strategic Plan

Matthew Hersh

The Princeton Health Care Task Force held their second public meeting yesterday at Township Hall where members weighed the feasibility of carrying out the hospital's goals in the current location and the possible economic impact of moving the 85-year-old facility out of town.

Members of the newly-formed task force, which comprises both Princeton Borough and Township mayors, members from their respective municipal governing bodies, and representatives of various municipal departments, also got their first opportunity to publicly discuss a hospital Strategic Plan put forth by the Princeton HealthCare System (PHCS) outlining the goals for clinical care and operations for the next five to 10 years.

At the very least, the Strategic Plan makes clear that the hospital needs to improve its facilities to remain competitive with the area's community hospitals.

Made public last week, the plan is the product of the hospital's mission to create a master list of goals and objectives, and to develop an all-encompassing strategy that accounts for all of the system's facilities and programming.

Additionally, the plan considers the success and viability of improving its current, seven-acre site at 253 Witherspoon Street, or simply relocating to an off-site, comprehensive 50-acre campus that would comprise all factions of PHCS, including Princeton House Behavioral Health, Princeton HomeCare Services, Princeton Surgical Center, and Merwick Rehab Hospital and Nursing Care.

PHCS has targeted up to 15 area sites where a potential campus could be built.

According to the hospital's plan, it would cost up to $230 million dollars to build a new campus, with about $15 million required to acquire the land needed to accommodate such facilities. PHCS estimates a cost of $180 to $190 million to expand its current facilities on Witherspoon Street.

Of course, if the hospital were to stay, extensive zoning variances would be required to facilitate a "build-up" that would allow it to function in a competitive capacity. Current Borough zoning code for the designated hospital zone allows a maximum of five stories, not to exceed a height of 67.5 feet.

Barry Royce, the chairperson of the Borough Zoning Board of Adjustment, said that from a zoning perspective, PHCS' Strategic Plan did little except to outline a shrewd business objective that offers the most financially-sound alternatives.

"From the zoning viewpoint, the Strategic Plan shows very little except [how] to make money," he said. In terms of making a decision on what is best for both community and hospital, he added, the plan did not answer enough questions.

"That's not going to get me where I need to be," he said.

Barry Rabner, president and CEO of the hospital system argued that while finances were a "part of it," the driving force behind the plan was keeping the hospital competitive and up-to-date. Over the past several years, the Medical Center has sustained significant losses in patient and physician loyalty, according to information put forth in the Strategic Plan. Further, the presence of five other area hospitals, as well has facilities in New York City and Philadelphia, has put the hospital at risk.

The purpose of the hospital's Strategic Plan, Mr. Rabner said, "is not to make money, but to provide state-of-the-art care to people who live around here.

"Money always seems to be a part of it, but it's not the purpose of the plan and it's not what's driving us to do what we're trying to get done," he said.

The task force has sought a $60,000 grant from the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission to gather independent research regarding the current hospital's traffic patterns, and those of possible future uses of the site. The DVRPC appropriates federal funds for the acquisition of private consultants. Outside consultation is needed to sustain the breadth of the hospital's final decisions regarding location, Township Mayor Phyllis Marchand said.

"This is a major, major event for a community," she added.

A third task force meeting has been tentatively scheduled for September 14, and a preliminary date for a public forum has been set for September 15.

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