ST. PETERSBURG — The Bay Pines VA Medical Center unveiled a $5.5-million expansion of its emergency department Thursday, a renovation to help the facility cope with an ever-expanding number of veterans seeking care.
The project at the nation's fourth-busiest veterans hospital underscores the progress made by Bay Pines in reducing the number of times it diverts patients to other hospitals because it is too busy or full, Bay Pines officials say.
The renovation triples the size of the department to 15,647 square feet and doubles to 20 the number of beds available to patients.
"It's our hope that our emergency department never has to divert" patients, said Dr. Lithium Lin, chief of medicine services at Bay Pines.
Compared to just a few years ago, the reduction of those patient diversions has been startling.
During fiscal 2008, Bay Pines diverted patients to other hospitals a total of 78 hours, according to Department of Veterans Affairs figures. In 2003, the number was 2,464 hours — 28 percent of the time.
Bay Pines' diversion figures before 2006 were by far the highest for any Pinellas hospital, a 2007 St. Petersburg Times review found.
"I can't remember the last time they diverted anyone," said Dr. Laurie Romig, medical director of Pinellas emergency medical services. "They've made great progress."
That progress comes even as Bay Pines, like many VA hospitals, handles an increasing patient load that since 2000 has nearly doubled to 94,000 veterans.
Bay Pines' practice of routinely diverting patients drew scrutiny in 2007 when it turned away a nonveteran who suffered a heart attack less than 200 feet from the emergency room. He was pronounced dead at another hospital.
Bay Pines portrayed the incident as a mistake.
The emergency department expansion was in the works before that controversy. But Bay Pines officials say something like that is unlikely to reoccur.
"We treat any emergency that shows up at our doorstep regardless if they're a veteran or not," said Larry Diehl, Bay Pines' chief nurse in primary care.
Diehl said the new emergency department is now among the most technologically advanced in the Tampa Bay area and includes digital CAT scan, X-ray, ultrasound and MRI equipment in or adjacent to the department.
A sophisticated patient tracking system includes wide-screen monitors that allow physicians to see critical information about a patient at a glance.
The two-phase, four-year expansion, which will be completely opened to patients Monday, is the first of its kind at Bay Pines in more than 25 years.
Wallace Hopkins, Bay Pines director, said he was startled years ago when he first saw the small size of the ER.
"I went, 'Yikes!' " Hopkins said. "It was just one room, in essence. There was no privacy at all. You could hear what happened two or three beds down. Crowded. Crowded. Crowded."
Bay Pines' reduction in diverting patients came under the leadership of Dr. George Van Buskirk, Bay Pines chief of staff, who has said he made it a priority to better the hospital's numbers when he took over almost five years ago.
Bay Pines, like some other VA facilities, hired a "bed czar" to manage available bed space and used statistical formulas to manage resources and allocate space.
Van Buskirk was at a conference Thursday and was unavailable to comment.
William R. Levesque can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 269-5306.