Bel Air hospital aims to expand

As construction starts, Upper Chesapeake plans for more growth


Upper Chesapeake Medical Center has begun its biggest procedure to date: a two-year, $35 million expansion that has required the Bel Air facility to re-route some of its main arteries.

And with a growing patient load set to get a bump in the coming years from the military realignment windfall, officials are planning the hospital's next steps.

Last week, the hospital filed a certificate of need with the Maryland Health Care Commission that would allow it to modify its plan for growth. The move came just days after construction crews took over the back portion of the building to begin work on a three-story addition slated for completion by the end of 2007.

"This county's growing like crazy, and we've got to deal with that from a health care standpoint to help patients who need our care," said UCMC's vice president for operations, Eugene A. Currotto, who worked on Prince George's Hospital Center's expansion in the 1990s.

In the five years since it opened, taking the place of Fallston General Hospital, Upper Chesapeake has seen a surge in the number of patients it serves. The number of births rose more than 90 percent in five years, while the number of outpatient visits soared 143 percent during the same period.

At the end of last month, the emergency department's five ambulance bays and the Family Birthplace's direct entrance were closed as construction crews began laying utility lines. Those entrances are where the hospital will build the majority of its 44,000 square feet in additions - a three-story wing that will include 29 emergency beds and five childbirth rooms.

After the addition is finished, the existing structure will be renovated and joined to the newer part. Yellow boards hang on the brick exterior where steel beams will be inserted, and faint black Xs mark other work to be done.

"We've gotta marry the two buildings together," said Currotto. "It's kinda like surgery."

A parking garage with 400 spaces, which still needs to be approved by Bel Air officials, is expected to be included among the other changes. Harford Memorial Hospital is also undergoing $8 million renovations in its public and patient areas.

Patients should see little, if any, disruption in services, officials said, which was not the case with Upper Chesapeake's last big move. When UCMC - the Baltimore region's first new hospital in more than 25 years - replaced Fallston General Hospital in 2000, it took a five-hour rolling relay of 22 ambulances from Baltimore, Harford, Cecil and Anne Arundel counties, Baltimore City and two private companies to transport the patients from the old facility.

But the new work will require a little extra communication for hospital workers. Construction is taking place very close to an emergency helicopter landing pad - which was set 20 yards from the existing hospital. Pilots will have to wait for clearance before making transfers as crews move cranes and shuffle workers.

Upper Chesapeake's request would allow the hospital to add a fourth floor to the new wing that would be opened once demand merits it. It would be considered a separate project and would not be tacked onto the current expansion.

"What we want to do is put the walls up, the floor, the ceiling, but come back later on when the demand is there and fit it out for beds," said Lyle E. Sheldon, president and chief executive of Upper Chesapeake Health, which runs UCMC and Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace.

With an eye to the hospital's future needs, Shelton said Upper Chesapeake purchased about 25 adjacent acres along Route 24.

"When the neighbor's property comes available, you buy it, because you're not sure if it will again," Shelton said.

Together, the hospitals see 85,000 patients yearly in their emergency rooms, and their market share continues to increase as county residents stay closer to home for care.

"We have a very acute interest in keeping as many patients [as possible] in the county," said Dean C. Kaster, a development vice president.

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