Health care a 'bright spot' for job creation in Hernando County

Charge nurse Lisa Bachus gives the tour like a proud homeowner.

Leading a visitor into one of the 20 new cardiac care rooms on the sixth floor of Oak Hill Hospital, Bachus shows off what the facility got for its $6.5 million renovation.

There are cutting-edge tools for care, such as the wireless scanner that zeroes in on patient bracelets to provide instant access to their medical records. And there are appointments to make the rooms feel less like a hospital and more like a hotel, such as the flat-screen TVs and decorative mirrors in the bathroom.

This is where patients come to recover after open-heart surgery, cardiac catheterization and other procedures performed in the heart institute on the first floor. There is also space for other patients suffering from heart-related ailments who have yet to have surgery. That kind of space used to be at a premium.

"You felt bad saying to doctors, 'I don't have room for your patient,' " Bachus recalled.

The Spring Hill hospital hired an additional dozen or so nurses and technicians to help staff the expansion. But that impact is a fraction of what Oak Hill will embark on in this fall: a $50 million, 100,000-square-foot expansion that will add eight operating rooms, 36 private rooms and 18 beds to the post-anesthesia care unit.

It's the largest investment that parent company Hospital Corporation of America will make this year out of 160 hospitals nationwide, said Oak Hill CEO Mickey Smith.

"We're bursting at the seams," Smith said. "We desperately need the additional space."

What's happening at Oak Hill is not unique in Hernando. Even during the recent recession, health care providers have seen increased demand and have continued to make investments to prepare for the onslaught of the baby boomers.

That helped provide some semblance of stability in a county laid low by the housing bust, said county economic development manager Mike McHugh.

"When you look at job creation, certainly health care continues to be the bright spot of our economy," McHugh said. "It continued to grow during challenging times we've been in."

Between 2007 and 2008, health care and social services overtook retail as Hernando's top industry in terms of number of employees, said Dave Hamilton, operations manger for the Pasco-Hernando Workforce Board.

As of the third quarter of last year, 7,243 of the 35,158 people employed in the county — or 20.6 percent — were in the health care and social services industry, compared to 18.6 percent in the retail industry, according to data released by Florida's Agency for Workforce Innovation.

The retail industry has never come close to matching the payroll of the health care industry, Hamilton said. As of the third quarter of last year, the average monthly payroll for the health care industry was nearly $25 million.

"When you're talking about economic impact to the community, the monthly payroll is a good way to look at it," he said.

Among the largest contributors to those numbers is Health Management Associates Inc., which owns Brooksville Regional and Spring Hill Regional hospitals.

The company invested about $10 million in the last year for new technology and to acquire other health care providers, said Spring Hill Regional CEO Alex Contreras-Soto.

HMA bought a sleep clinic, an outpatient surgical center and the Good Shepherd Medical Clinic in Spring Hill. In the last 12 months, the company added 20 physicians between the two hospitals, Contreras-Soto said.

The company also upgraded equipment for urologic and orthopedic procedures and digital mammography. Brooksville Regional now boasts the da Vinci Surgical System, a robotic- and computer-assisted platform for minimally invasive procedures.

"If Hernando didn't have a future, we wouldn't have invested the amount of money we did," Contreras-Soto said. "We're here to stay, and we're going to grow."

In its sixth year at its new location on State Road 50 west of Brooksville, Brooksville Regional is doing well as far as space is concerned, said CEO Patrick Maloney. But Maloney said the hospital will eventually need to make use of an existing shelled-in area for a fifth operating room. The building also can accommodate two more stories.

"Hopefully we'll be successful and build up," Maloney said.

Maloney said a national health care company is among firms interested in the buildings east of the hospital that have sat vacant and unfinished for several months.

There are other projects on the horizon across the county.

WestBridge Community Services broke ground last month on a nearly 20,000-square-foot residential mental health and drug treatment facility on Grove Road north of State Road 50, west of Brooksville. WestBridge anticipates hiring 40 full- and part-time employees, with recruitment starting in mid July.

Springbrook Hospital, a 66-bed psychiatric hospital on Grove Road south of SR 50, will break ground this year on a 30-bed expansion that will require more physicians, nurses and administrative staff, said administrator John Sanutto. The goal is to move in by fall of 2012.

Another growing health care force in the county continues to build momentum.

Access Health Care, a multispeciality group of physicians, has about 25 locations in Hernando, said CEO Dr. Pariksith Singh, That's roughly half of the total locations Access has in the five counties in which it operates.

Access has about 250 employees in Hernando and sees as many as 600 patients a day here. The company opened a location on Spring Hill Drive just west the Suncoast Parkway about a year and a half ago and plans to add as many as 10 primary care physicians and specialists in the near future, Singh said.

"Strange as it may seem, there were no physicians there," he said of the area near large housing developments like Silverthorn and Pristine Place. "(The office) has done well and picked up."

Now, though, Access will focus less on expansion and more on staying ahead of the sea change in the industry that will reward an efficient, consolidated approach to medical care, Singh said.

"If they provide great services to patients, companies will survive," he said. "Those that don't change will die out."

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

Health care a 'bright spot' for job creation in Hernando County 03/26/11 [Last modified: Saturday, March 26, 2011 5:30am]

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