Palmerton Hospital building’s fate unclear
Robert Martin, St. Luke’s senior vice president, talks about plans for the Palmerton hospital building and the new hospital during the Chamber of Commerce meeting Tuesday. Scan this photo with the Prindeo app to see a video of Martin. JARRAD HEDES/TIMES NEWS
The future of St. Luke’s University Health Network campus in Palmerton remains undecided as a new hospital in Franklin Township moves through preliminary planning phases.
St. Luke’s officials addressed the elephant in the room during a presentation Tuesday afternoon in front of the Palmerton Area Chamber of Commerce held at Bert’s Steakhouse and Restaurant.
“As we get further down the pike and the decision about a development of a hospital in Franklin Township becomes more concrete, we’ll also work with the representatives of the Palmerton community to better understand what we would use the existing hospital for,” Robert Martin, St. Luke’s senior vice president, said.
There are several likely scenarios for the property at 135 Lafayette Ave. Both would be contingent on the new hospital in Franklin Township coming to fruition.
“We would probably raze the hospital and turn the area into a park,” Martin said. “If someone came along with a use that makes more sense, such as housing for example, we’d entertain that. We’re not in the business of leaving buildings falling apart. We’re a nonprofit. We exist for the benefit of the community and we want to take that asset and turn it into something the residents would be most happy with.”
Following the St. Luke’s merger with the Blue Mountain Health System, it relocated several services from the Palmerton campus, including the operating rooms, to the Gnaden Huetten campus in Lehighton.
Shortly after, it unveiled plans for a 130,000-square-foot hospital along Harrity Road, just off Route 209 in Franklin Township.
According to a presentation at a Franklin Township Planning Commission meeting, the proposed hospital would open with around 40 bedrooms and eventually have 80. St. Luke’s expects to employ 200 people at the new facility to start. The lot would have 535 parking spots.
“We have to go through a land development process in Franklin Township and we’re just at the beginning of that,” Martin said. “It requires a review from township officials, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. The process typically takes 6-12 months to complete.”
Martin said the accessibility off the Pennsylvania Turnpike’s Northeast Extension and routes 248 and 209 will help St. Luke’s recruit physicians to the site, which he previewed as an “icon of the community.”
Questioned on the location of the new hospital and the ease of accessibility for residents of Palmerton and neighboring communities, specifically those to the east, Martin said St. Luke’s tracked where current Palmerton and Gnaden Huetten patients were coming from and took that into consideration.
“You’re not going to please everyone,” Martin said. “I look at it this way, 70 percent of Carbon County residents are leaving the county for their health care. If we can get two-thirds of them back, that is a very positive thing.”
Before the merger, the Blue Mountain Health System was being bled dry, to the tune of $6 million a year. It was losing physicians, employees and patients at a rapid rate.
St. Luke’s was aggressive right from the start, Terry Purcell, president of the Palmerton and Gnaden Huetten campuses, said Tuesday.
With just one exception, every Blue Mountain employee was offered a position at one of the St. Luke’s campuses.
“In the first six months, we went from losing $6 million to a $4.5 million gain,” Purcell said. “A big part of that was cost reduction through being part of a bigger system. The merger saved over $1 million each on insurance costs and group purchasing contracts.”
Employees also saw lower deductibles and insurance copays.
“Over 50 employees saw a salary increase of over $16,000,” Purcell said. “It was really incredible the turnaround in a short amount of time.”
While some services were moved out of Palmerton, Gnaden Huetten has held steady.
A large skilled nursing facility remains on site along with rehabilitation and behavioral health services.
“We will continue to invest in those facilities, the technology and people there,” Martin said.
Fixing Palmerton’s campus?
Fix or buy new is a common question and one that faced St. Luke’s leaders early in the merger process.
The building in Palmerton was aging rapidly. Structural, mechanical, electrical, plumbing and other improvements were estimated at around $30 million, while the new building in Franklin Township is pegged at $70 million.
“It’s a balancing act,” Martin said. “You have to study something to understand what you’re getting into. One of the main things was the HVAC system at Palmerton was no longer up to code and we had to decide whether to replace it or build new.”
Although the Lafayette Avenue campus will likely eventually no longer be used as a hospital, Martin said St. Luke’s is looking for property in town for an outpatient facility.
“We’re looking at probably a 30,000-square-foot building,” Martin said. “We haven’t found anything yet, but we would like to keep an outpatient facility here in Palmerton.”
The timing, however, would not be right, he added, to convert the existing Palmerton campus into that outpatient facility.
“If we broke ground on the Franklin Township hospital next spring, it would be 2020 before it would be built,” Martin said. “Then it would be 2021 before we could work on the existing Palmerton hospital. We would love to have an outpatient facility open by the end of 2020.”
Former Palmerton Hospital President Peter Kern told Martin he would give him an “A” grade for St. Luke’s commitment to the Blue Mountain Health System and what it plans to do, but a “D” grade for communication with the public.
Martin acknowledged the critique, saying St. Luke’s hopes to improve on that as time goes on.
“We performed poorly in communicating over the last several months,” Martin said. “We wanted to, we just weren’t sure what to say. We’re nervous about everyone concluding we are building a new hospital in Franklin Township. We’re doing everything possible to do that, but we don’t want to get messages out ahead of what our own board of directors have even been told. Until you see the shovels out there, you can’t count on anything.”