After pandemic-related delays, Conemaugh Health System is moving ahead with several significant expansions.
The first major new construction in more than 20 years at Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center’s main campus will begin in the coming weeks.
“Our Building D project, which is about an $80 million project, had to be delayed, but we will break ground on that here within the next couple months,” said William Caldwell, market president for Conemaugh Health System and CEO for Conemaugh Memorial Medical Center.
“It’s a pretty exciting project,” he added.
Meanwhile, the foundation is in place and structural steel is on site for a new outpatient center in Cresson Borough, and work has resumed on upgrading all of Memorial’s medical units.
All three projects had been put on hold as Memorial’s medical teams concentrated on controlling the COVID-19 pandemic and treating those who were infected.
“I think, probably, the word there would be ‘delay,’ ” Caldwell said during a video interview with The Tribune-Democrat.
“All the other things in our strategic plans we continue to try to execute on,” he said.
Development plans for Building D were approved earlier this month by the Johnstown Planning Commission. The new five-story building will be located in what is now a grassy area behind the atrium section of the Franklin Street campus.
Calling it a “multi-year project,” Caldwell said the structure is designed to allow for additional floors to be added if the need arises.
The new building will be connected to the main hospital on the third floor to improve patient flow. It will provide a new home for cardiovascular services and centralize services related to surgery, Caldwell said.
The Cresson facility, under construction in the 800 block of Second Street, will consolidate existing physician practices and include additional services. It will be the fourth outpatient center built in the past four years, following Conemaugh East Hills, Conemaugh Ebensburg and Conemaugh Somerset. Those three projects represent more than $100 million investment by Conemaugh Health System and its parent, Duke LifePoint Healthcare, leaders said.
The long-awaited ambulatory surgery center in the Conemaugh East Hills facility began operation this month. Doctors have been performing colonoscopies and other gastroenterology procedures in the Richland Township facility. Eventually, almost all outpatient and same-day procedures will be offered at East Hills.
“That’s exciting,” Caldwell said. “From a patient’s point of view, the ease of use of an outpatient center is a big attraction.”
Conemaugh’s ongoing recruitment of medical staff and specialists was another effort that bogged down during surges in COVID-19 cases. Although telephone and video interviews continued with candidates, those interactions have limits, Caldwell said.
“People couldn’t make site visits,” he said. “That has gotten back on track. Really, for a candidate to ultimately make a decision, they want to see the community and walk through the hospital.”
Nevertheless, there were some successes. Physicians joining Memorial’s medical staff included Dr. Michael Warren, pain management; Dr. Lou Mastrine, cardiology; Dr. Akil Hassam, gastroenterology; Dr. Leonardo Amper, internal medicine; and Dr. David Blumberg, colorectal surgeon.
State College-based University Orthopedics Center expanded its Cambria County operation with a new location in the Conemaugh East Hills outpatient center.
Overall volumes were down in several areas last year. That’s something Caldwell said the hospital is concerned about, both from the standpoint of lost revenue and from the standpoint of patients’ health.
“People may have put off some things that they shouldn’t put off,” he said.
Dr. Elizabeth Dunmore, Conemaugh’s chief medical officer, said the health system is tracking cancer diagnoses and outcomes to determine if pandemic-fueled delays in treatment affected patient health.
“That is something, anecdotally, our physicians are saying,” Dunmore said. “They are seeing people coming in sicker and with more advanced illness.
“It is something to emphasize if people are having concerning symptoms or new-onset symptoms. Care here is safe. They should come here and get their symptoms taken care of. Delay is much more dangerous.”
Future of Lee Campus
While Conemaugh leaders continue to explore options for the older sections of the former Lee Hospital, there are no plans to move existing programs out of the Lee Campus. The transitional care unit, Crichton Rehabilitation Center and wound healing center will remain at the downtown Johnstown campus, Caldwell said.
As the pandemic eases, there may be renewed interest from investors to revitalize the former State Theater within the Lee Hospital building, he said.
“I think that’s a pretty exciting project, if it can get off the ground,” Caldwell said. “In terms of economic development in the community, anything that gives people a reason to come downtown is a good thing. A performing arts venue would fit that bill.”
The rest of the Lee structure presents a challenge, Caldwell admitted.
“What do we do with the older part of that building?” he said. “Are there development opportunities with that? I would hope so, but at some point, that older part of the building gets developed or, at some point in time, it would come down.”
There is potential for an innovative investor, he said.
“I’ve seen old hospitals in other communities get converted into condo space or apartments,” Caldwell said. “I think that would be a pretty cool thing for downtown.”