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Patient demand drives

Nashoba Valley plans new 100-bed hospital

Nashoba Valley Medical Center of Ayer is pushing ahead with plans for a multimillion-dollar 100-bed hospital building that would be constructed behind the existing 57-bed structure, which would be renovated for other purposes, hospital chief executive Andrei Soran said this week.

The hospital's likely expansion in the next three to five years would result in more doctors, nurses, and support personnel being hired, he said. ''We are moving ahead in the process of achieving the goal of a new hospital, consistent with community needs," Soran said in a telephone interview. Meantime, there are also plans to build a new medical office building in the next year and a half, he said.

Soran said that population growth in the hospital's region together with the ''level of service provided" by the hospital has led to a 15 percent increase since January 2003 in the number of in-patient and out-patient admissions at the hospital.

A number of steps still have to be taken to make the new hospital building a reality, he emphasized. They include, he noted, the completion of a detailed financial analysis of the proposal, approval of plans by the hospital's for-profit parent, Essent Healthcare Inc. of Nashville, and a go-ahead from the state Department of Public Health.

Soran said he's confident Essent and the state will approve the project, and the final test will be an Ayer Town Meeting vote on possible tax incentives, which have been discussed informally among town and hospital officials. It is uncertain when such a vote would take place.

Shaun Suhoski, Ayer's community and economic development director, said his office supports the hospital's redevelopment effort, which would be one of the largest the town has seen in years.

Next month, Essent's founder and chief executive, W. Hudson Connery Jr., will visit the hospital to be briefed fully on the proposal and to get a firsthand view of where the new building would be built on the 39-acre campus off Groton Road, Soran said.

The formal expansion plans are expected to be presented to Essent's board of directors by July, he said.

Essent, which was founded in 1999, acquired Deaconess-Nashoba Hospital from CareGroup Inc. of Boston on Jan. 1, 2003 for $8.6 million. It owns four other hospitals. The only other one in Massachusetts is Merrimack Valley Hospital of Haverhill.

As part of its purchase agreement for Nashoba, Essent pledged to spend $16 million on initial capital improvements to the hospital. ''We've invested $6 million so far," Soran said, adding that much of this money has been spent on state-of-the-art medical equipment, especially imaging systems, and infrastructure upgrades.

A new hospital building -- precise construction costs have yet to be determined -- would enable the medical center to branch into additional patient-care disciplines, he said. ''Strong consideration is being given to obstetrical services," he added. Gynecological services have been offered for some time.

Although it's not known how many people will be hired, there's no doubt that a new hospital ''would drive the employment numbers upward," he said.

''We already have 75 more employees than when we started," Soran said. Nashoba currently has some 540 full-time slots for support staff and more than 175 physicians, he said.

''We will fill in the [medical service] gaps for people in our region, who are supporting us," Soran said. This past winter, for example, there were days when all of the hospital's 57 beds were filled, he said. But no patients were diverted, he said, since it is rare that a person has to wait more than a few hours in the emergency department for a bed in the hospital.

Besides Ayer, Nashoba's core service area is Groton, Harvard, Shirley, Pepperell, and Townsend. It also reaches out to other communities such as Littleton, Westford, Boxborough, West Acton, and Bolton.

Suhoski, the Ayer official, said, ''Nashoba is a key driver of the regional economy as a whole and the regional health-care sector, in particular. They've made significant investments, and this latest proposal goes even further."

The history of the current hospital dates from 1965, when Nashoba Community Hospital was created through the merger of Ayer and Groton facilities. In 1994, Deaconess Hospital of Boston purchased Nashoba Community. Two years later, Deaconess merged with Beth Israel Hospital, also of Boston. It is now the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

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