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Coast’s hospitals moving past Katrina, providing new facilities

Hospitals on the Mississippi Gulf Coast have recovered from Hurricane Katrina and are meeting the needs of the changing area. As the population shifts and the Coastal counties rebuild, hospitals have adapted.

Brian Sanderson, president of the Gulf Coast Business Council, says hospitals are major economic drivers for the area’s economy, providing thousands of jobs and direct annual impact of more than $500 million.

“The hospitals have regained most of their staffing losses since Katrina and are optimistic about the future of quality healthcare on the Gulf Coast,” he said. “The current Medicaid shortfall and trauma care needs are two short-term, critical issues confronting Coast hospitals but workforce development and training are the most pressing long-term challenge.”

However, Memorial Hospital at Gulfport’s president and CEO Gary Marchand says his facility is doing well. As for the labor shortage, Memorial’s nursing vacancy rates are below the national average and there are no shortages that affect operations.

“In August 2005, we had 284 medical staff and now we have 274. Anything we lost in specialties, we’ve recovered, and all specialties are filled,” he said. “We have 2,300 to 2,650 employees and are using more part-time employees now. The storm is partly responsible, but we have to be more flexible. More people are seeking part-time work now.”

Up to the challenge

Hardest hit of Coast hospitals, Hancock Medical Center had $26 million in damages from Katrina. The staff pitched in to get the county-owned facility back in a condition to serve the needs of the devastated area.

“Whatever it took, our employees were up to the challenge to bring our facility back strong,” said administrator Hal W. Leftwich. “Just about everyone wanted to stay and work and help the facility recover. All of our employees working here today have played an important role in bringing back healthcare services to our citizens. We have a determined group.”

Hancock Medical employs more than 400 people. Early in the recovery stage, the facility operated 25 beds but is now up to 47 beds as the journey back to 104 beds continues. New, updated equipment has replaced storm-damaged items and construction projects to improve physical structures on the campus will begin this year. The physician roster continues to grow with the recent addition of an orthopedic surgeon.

Leftwich said patient numbers are down slightly in proportion with the changing population. “However,” he added, “more than 2,500 inpatients and outpatients trusted us with surgeries in 2007, and the staff helped deliver 281 babies. It’s been amazing to see everyone pull together. Katrina knocked us down for sure, but never out. We are coming back stronger.”

Hancock Medical Center also operates clinics in Diamondhead, Kiln and Pearlington.

‘Back to normal’

Richard Lucas, director of communications for the Singing River Hospital System, says both Singing River Hospital in Pascagoula and Ocean Springs Hospital in Ocean Springs are quite healthy as they enter 2008.

“We did lose some employees and physicians due to the storm, but we are pretty much back to normal levels now at both hospitals,” he said. “In fact, we have added some key physicians to our medical staffs, including two new cardiovascular surgeons.”

Garden Park Hospital in Gulfport had extensive physical damage but recovered and reports smooth operations now. Biloxi Regional Medical Center, in operation since 1908, hasn’t missed a beat, but its sister facility, Gulf Coast Medical Center, also in Biloxi, closed the acute side of its operation as 2007 ended.

Located on Debuys Road just off U.S. 90 in Biloxi, the initial announcement of Gulf Coast Medical Center’s closing came in early November and had 359 employees looking for work before the new year. Citing a population shift north of U.S. 90 following Hurricane Katrina, the hospital experienced a decreasing in-patient load. Surrounding neighborhoods and businesses were wiped out by the 2005 storm and rebuilding is slow. The hospital’s closure means a loss of 144 beds, but Biloxi Regional spokeswoman Lori Bickel points out that other services will remain open on the campus of the Hospital Management Associates-owned facility.

“The services remaining open include the Gulf Oaks Psychiatric Hospital, the Center for Breast Care, the Gulf Coast Sleep Laboratory, the Wound Care and Hyperbaric Clinic, Gulf Coast Physical Therapy and the Pace Medical Plaza,” she said.

Marchand says Memorial Hospital felt some impacts of the Gulf Coast Memorial closing. “Medical surgeries are up, and we think it’s partly due to the closing,” he said. “I think the closing has been absorbed by the three hospitals in Harrison County.”

Memorial, he says, is done with looking back. “In late fall of 2006, we decided we’d had enough of being Katrina ‘recoverholics’ and were where we needed to be,” Marchand said.

Now, the facility is looking forward for three to five years in terms of service and capital planning. “We’re playing some guessing games on the population, but we think in three to five years we will be back to where we were,” he said. “We are mindful of where the population has shifted, how quickly Harrison County will recover, where and how the population will return and when the linear coastline population will return.”

Celebrating a century

Bickel points out that Biloxi Regional is proud to continue the tradition of excellent care it has provided for 100 years. “Today, Biloxi Regional Medical Center is a 153-bed acute care private facility and will celebrate with a year-long centennial celebration,” she said. “We provide the latest and most advanced medical equipment and technology and continue to develop new and innovative programs for our patients and the community.”

In addition to the facilities on Debuys Road and in downtown Biloxi, the system operates the Cedar Lake Diagnostic Imaging Center and other off-site services that include the Healing Center, Lakeview Family Medicine Center, Oakview Medicine, Industrial Health and Wellness Center, Coastview Medical Clinic and Biloxi Regional Therapy Center.

Patient loads at the two hospitals of the Singing River System are back to normal, including having the second-busiest emergency department in the state, according to Lucas.

“We continue to press forward with facilities updates, significant renovations at both hospitals, such as a remodeled emergency department at Ocean Springs Hospital,” he said. “We also recently opened the D’Iberville Medical Center, our fifth such outreach clinic.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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