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Hospital at Forum: "We Need to Change"

Matthew Hersh

For the better part of two years, Princeton HealthCare System has been grappling with the prospect of overhauling its facilities as it attempts to stay abreast of technology and health care.

To remain in an aging facility would mean an almost certain demise, hospital administrators said, citing a $7 million loss of revenue per year between 1998 and 2001.

At last Wednesday's public forum, however, those same hospital administrators, health practitioners, and a hired consultant, presented the hospital's case for either expansion or relocation. While quality, and not physical location, is paramount for the hospital, said Barry Rabner, president and CEO of PHCS, it is, indeed, location that has become the hot-button topic.

Deeming it "necessary" for the hospital to undergo significant change, Mr. Rabner cited studies involving public response ranging from the surveying of 10,000 patients, meetings with over a dozen area municipalities, and 60 public meetings with neighbors and patients. Additionally, the hospital received outside consulting from engineers and architects. "We had everybody but an astrologer," Mr. Rabner quipped at a presentation at the Suzanne Patterson Senior Center last Wednesday, where he addressed area seniors, many of whom receive out-patient care from PHCS.

According to the hospital's recently-released strategic plan, the problem is that it would cost between $180-190 million, excluding land acquisition cost, to meet the needs of the hospital. Those needs include the goal of building a campus that would comprise several factions of PHCS, including Merwick Rehabilitation and Nursing Care and Princeton House Behavioral Health. To "build up" at the hospital's current location at 253 Witherspoon Street would ultimately be cost ineffective, according to the plan, because it would result in a dense area leaving little room for future growth. The plan went on to say that after 2025, extended growth at the Witherspoon Street campus would be "minimal."

Enter Alan Sager, Boston University professor, director of B.U.'s Masters of Public Health program, and the hired independent consultant to PHCS. Prof. Sager was brought on board in August with the aid of a grant received from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation providing $5,000 for his services.

Bolstering the hospital's findings, Prof. Sager said that moving the facility altogether to a new campus would be a "platform for more intense services," adding that traffic and ambulatory circulation would be "much easier." Simply patching-up the current hospital would result in a "risk of unpredictable disruptions of care," Prof. Sager said.

While building a new campus would require an estimated cost of about $220 million and about $15 million for land acquisition, Prof. Sager said a move would harvest philanthropic support, "especially if [the hospital's] case is made for necessity," he reported in his findings.

Additionally, PHCS would likely be able to acquire funds from the sale of the hospital's Witherspoon site. The University, Mr. Rabner pointed out, is still "very interested" in acquiring the current hospital site and "probably" the Merwick site on Bayard Lane. According to Mr. Rabner, the University had been interested in creating graduate student housing on those sites. Princeton University pays full property tax on its graduate student housing facilities. Princeton HealthCare System, a 501(c)(3), charitable organization, is tax-exempt.

However, a "land-swap" would not be in the works if a deal were to be made with the University, Mr. Rabner continued, fielding a question about the University's currently unused land in West Windsor.

What kind of changes in Princeton's municipal master plan and zoning codes would make it feasible to sell the current hospital site for alternative development? Currently, the Witherspoon Street site is specifically zoned for hospital use, but would need to be changed as transactions occur. The Princeton Health Care Task Force, a body of Borough and Township legislators, zoning board representatives, and planning officials, is looking at that issue as the hospital moves forward in its findings.

In that a new home seems likely for the hospital, Mr. Rabner used the clinical lab as an example of PHCS' future limitations. Ninety percent of the equipment in the lab did not exist when it was built in 1965, Mr. Rabner said. Additionally, the lab, currently 9,000 square-feet, needs to add another 3,000 square-feet to make standard technological adjustments, costing PHCS $1 million. Calling the cost "insane," Mr. Rabner said it was necessary because the structural changes cannot wait until a new facility is built. "We don't have a choice."

A public forum focusing on the possibility of expanding the Witherspoon campus will be held October 14 at Township Hall.

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