Plans to merge two midcoast hospitals received a possible setback this week. On Tuesday, the state's Health and Human Services Commissioner Mary Mayhew issued a letter approving the merger of Miles Memorial Hospital in Damariscotta and St. Andrews Hospital in Boothbay -- on the condition that a 24-hour urgent care facility is re-established on the Boothbay peninsula.
Scott Shott is vice-president of Development, Marketing & Community Relations at Lincoln County Healthcare, or LincolnHealth, which owns the two hospitals, along with a nearby nursing home. Plans for the merger have been underway for several years now, and he says the letter from Mayhew was unexpected.
"We work very closely with the state, and we're committed to work closely with the state," Shott said. "Often you have a sense of what's coming, and in this case we didn't and we were surprised."
There used to be a 24-hour emergency room in Boothbay's St Andrews hospital, but LincolnHealth closed it down last October as part of its merger plan.
The ER was converted into an urgent care center, staffed for 12 hours a day. Patients requiring emergency care currently have to go to the ER at Miles Memorial Hospital -- at least a 40 minute drive away.
In her letter to LincolnHealth CEO James Donovan, DHHS commissioner Mayhew says round-the-clock service must be set up within three months of the merger being approved and remain in operation for at least three years. The facility may be closed before that however -- in a little as 18 months in fact -- if LincolnHealth can show that it's not being used enough to justify the expense of running it.
Shott says the group is not yet sure of the ramifications of Mayhew's letter, but he says the decision to close the ER seven months ago was prompted above all by low patient volume.
"About 0.6 patients a night, so that's about one patient every other night," Shott said.
Which is not enough, he says, to give ER staff the experience they need to remain competent.
"Also there is a financial emergency department between midnight and 6 a.m. that's seeing half a patient a night, or one patient every other night, the economics just don't work," Shott said.
The decision to close the ER did not go down well with many local residents, who point out that Lincoln County has the oldest population in the oldest state in the country.
But Patty Seybold says she's encouraged by commissioner Mayhew's letter.
"We are excited and thrilled and surprised, pleasantly surprised that we were heard," Seybold said.
Seybold is president of Boothbay Health and Wellness Foundation -- a community task force set up to fight the decision to close the ER at St Andrews.
"The upshot is that we will get at least 18 months of 24 hour urgent care and I think that will go a long way toward making people in the community feel a lot safer," she said.
Beyond that, Seybold hopes the community and LincolnHealth can work together to find a way of operating a 24-hour care facility that's less costly than a fully-staffed ER, but nevertheless capable of meeting most of the needs of Boothbay's aging population.
To view Mayhew's letter to LincolnHealth, click here.