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Highland Community Hospital will grow along with community

Highland Community Hospital in Picayune has a good problem. It is in one of the fastest-growing counties in the country, and the healthcare facility must grow to serve the increasing population.

Pearl River County, located near the population center of Slidell/New Orleans, La., experienced slow growth for many years as residents from the neighboring state chose to retire or re-locate to the South Mississippi area. Following Hurricane Katrina, the area had a tremendous growth spurt, and the hospital is keeping up with that growth. A new facility has been in the works for the former Crosby Memorial Hospital for some time, but is more pressing now.

“We always had people retire here from New Orleans, and it was hard to get them to come to a 50-year-old hospital,” says administrator Steve Grimm. “Plus, we have residents who work at nearby Stennis Space Center. Our service area has a population of 35,000 to 40,000.”

The hospital was owned for many years by a local foundation before ownership passed to a group of physicians, and in 2006 was bought by Forrest General Hospital of Hattiesburg. Grimm says the physicians tried to practice in Louisiana and Mississippi, but malpractice insurance for two states made that prohibitive.

“For a long time, the hospital was Crosby Memorial. We appreciate the Crosby family — think a lot of them and always will,” Grimm said.

Ed Tucker, vice president of corporate services for Forrest General, says there was an agreement to build a new facility in Picayune when the Hattiesburg healthcare facility took it over.
“The community is growing, and we feel they need a new facility,” he said. “That decision was reached a long time ago. We know they need it, and that it will attract patients who are now going to Slidell and New Orleans.”

He adds that the new hospital will benefit the community economically. Because the cost of healthcare is 20 to 30 percent higher in Louisiana, employees and employers incur more expense going out of state for services.

“It’s hard to attract industry to a town with a facility built in the 1950s even though is has a good staff and new equipment,” he said. “Any services that can’t be performed in Picayune can be referred to Hattiesburg. We feel we have services as good as can be found anywhere.”

With 250 employees and a medical staff of 20 physicians — including surgeons, radiologists and a hospitalist — the hospital has a $13-million payroll, giving the local economy a boost. Trauma care is coordinated through Forrest General.

“With that, we’re still losing 35 to 40 percent of our services to the South (Slidell and New Orleans),” Grimm said. “We can have growth of services here. We’ve got to earn that business, and it’s hard in an old facility.

Grimm says the hospital’s name change was important to reflect the new realities. At 80 feet above sea level, Pearl River County does not fear the destruction of a storm surge or flood. Being on high land inspired the name.

“We didn’t want the county split into north and south by calling it either of those names, and Highland Community Hospital seems to fit,” he said. “We have an outstanding staff who work here and 20 physicians who use the facility.”

Licensed for 95 beds, Grimm feels the small facility gives family-type care in a setting where most patients and staff know each other. “The heart of the hospital is the employees,” he says. “We must first provide services. As we grow with the new facility, we will bring in other specialties and add services such as oncology along with adding more employees.”

Construction of the new facility will not start before April and no later than September, according to Tucker. “We’ve been working on a program design for months because we’re designing a work flow that we will have to live with for a long time,” he said. “I challenge the staff and architects to look at it carefully and build in some room for growth. We have to do it but it’s hard to do.”

He says financing is in place and committed to the project. Phase A will take approximately two years to build at an estimated cost of $67.5 million. This phase includes 59 operational beds and a ‘shelled-in space’ for 36 additional beds, 19 emergency examination rooms compared to the current facility’s eight and 16 recovery and observation beds.

“Currently, there’s a lot of crowding in the emergency rooms. Highland has 16,000 emergency room visits a year,” Tucker said.

Phase B calls for completing the shelled-in beds, taking the bed count up to 95, at a cost of $5 million, and should begin two years after Phase A is complete. Phase C will include an expansion of the surgery suite, the intensive care unit and radiology department at a cost of $9.2 million, and is scheduled to begin four years after Phase B. The total construction package carries a price tag of $81.7 million.

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

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