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State recommends denial of Isle of Wight hospital

A Virginia Department of Health staff report recommends Riverside Health System’s proposed 50-bed Isle of Wight County hospital be denied a state certificate of public need.

The VDH issued its report on Oct. 19, six days after holding a virtual public hearing on the matter.

Since 1973, Virginia has utilized the certificate of public need process, which requires state approval for the construction of new hospitals or the expansion of an existing one. The state considers Riverside’s proposal to be “competing” with a proposed 27-bed addition to Sentara Leigh Hospital in Norfolk, since both would serve the VDH’s Planning District 20.

Planning District 20 includes Isle of Wight and Southampton counties and the cities of Franklin, Suffolk, Chesapeake, Portsmouth, Norfolk and Virginia Beach.

The report concludes Sentara “has adequately demonstrated an institutional need to increase its medical-surgical inventory to properly care for its patient population.” But, on the other hand, “the status quo is a preferable alternative” to the Riverside project, which “unnecessarily duplicates existing services already available in surplus in PD 20.”

“Inpatient bed services currently exist within a 30-minute drive for at least 95% of the population of PD 20 and approval of the proposed project would not improve geographic access to inpatient bed services for persons in PD 20 in any meaningful way,” the report states.

During the public hearing, however, a number of speakers argued it can take upwards of half an hour for Isle of Wight’s ambulances to reach hospitals in neighboring localities, particularly if they get stuck in traffic on the James River Bridge due to a draw bridge opening on their way to Riverside’s Newport News hospital. Kinsey Chilcutt, who spoke on behalf of Surry’s Office of Emergency Services, said Surry’s distance from hospitals in Suffolk, the Peninsula and the Petersburg metro area — coupled with the county’s having only two paid emergency medical technicians on duty each day — make it “extremely challenging to provide professional care in a timely manner.”

According to the VDH report, the Sentara project received 18 letters of support, one in opposition from Chesapeake Regional Healthcare, and 26 verbal statements of support from public hearing attendees. The Riverside project received “several hundred letters of support,” one in opposition from Bon Secours Mercy Health, and 73 verbal statements of support from public hearing attendees. Jessica Macalino, associate vice president cardiovascular and pulmonary service line for Riverside Health System, had previously estimated the number of letters in support sent to the VDH at “nearly 2,000.”

“We are deeply disappointed by the initial recommendation that was communicated Tuesday, Oct. 19, by staff at the Virginia Department of Health to deny the proposed Riverside Smithfield Hospital,” said Riverside Chief Executive Officer Bill Downey in a statement. “Thousands of residents, the leadership and first responders across Isle of Wight and Surry counties made clear their support, both in personal testimony and in written signature, for Riverside Smithfield Hospital. It is unfortunate that many of the men, women and children in these counties, both of which are federally recognized as Medically Underserved Areas, have inadequate access to quality healthcare services and limited choice in providers. We remain steadfast in our commitment to support the improvement of access to high quality healthcare and believe there are numerous reasons for the Commissioner to approve Riverside Smithfield Hospital. We will continue to work with those at the Virginia Department of Health and the Commissioner, who will ultimately make the final decision, to clearly demonstrate the public need for Riverside Smithfield Hospital. We want to thank the many residents, local officials and first-responders who provided such a tremendous outpouring of support.”

According to Piero Mannino, supervisor of the VDH’s Division of Certificate of Public Need, now that the VDH recommendation for denial is on record, the Riverside project will head to an “informal fact-finding conference” akin to a court proceeding, where the applicant will have another opportunity to make its case for the project to an “adjudication officer.” That process will take several weeks, after which, that officer’s recommendation will go to State Health Commissioner Dr. Norman Oliver for a final decision, which is to be announced Dec. 8.