WESTERLY —A new 18-bed geriatric behavioral health unit and expansion of oncology services are planned for Westerly Hospital in 2019, the facility's president and chief executive officer said last week.

Plans for the new services, which will require renovations at the Wells Street hospital, are being made despite a third consecutive year of financial losses, and are a clear illustration of the benefits of membership in a larger health-care delivery network and affiliation with Yale New Haven Health, hospital administrators said during an interview.

The hospital experienced operating losses of $5.3 million in fiscal year 2016, $7.7 million in fiscal 2017, and $3.5 million in fiscal 2018, which ended on Sept. 30. Westerly Hospital has been part of the L+M Healthcare network since mid-2013; the network affiliated with Yale New Haven Health in October 2016.

"Because the little mini-system is up that allows money to come in specifically to Westerly, whereas if Westerly was down 5 percent on its own and lived on its own there would be no money to reinvest," said Michael O'Farrell, a spokesman for L+M Healthcare.

The geriatric unit represents part of the Yale system's "earlier commitment to bring in behavioral health in Westerly," said Patrick L. Green, L+M Healthcare president and chief executive officer.

Expanded oncology services in Westerly will give patients in Westerly Hospital's service area an opportunity to receive some of the state-of-the-art cancer services delivered at Yale's Smilow Cancer Hospital Care Centers, Green said.

Other planned growth areas include cardiac and vascular services, neurology, and urology, Green said. The hospital is also recruiting a new surgical specialist, an additional gastrointestinal physician, and is continuing its efforts to attract additional primary care physicians. Work on a new master facility plan is about to begin.

A $4.5 million renovation to the cardiac catheterization laboratory started in October. "This is a very important part of our entire delivery network so the investments will continue to be there," Green said.

The investments in Westerly come as Hartford HealthCare continues its encroachment into the local market with a medical office building under construction on Route 2 in Pawcatuck and a $20 million health center planned and recently announced as part of the Perkins Farm development off Jerry Browne Road in Mystic.

"We have our own strategy ... I'm confident we're going to remain the trusted health-care partner for Westerly, Green said during an interview at The Sun office. He began his current position in June 2017, succeeding Bruce Cummings, and is also an executive vice president of Yale New Haven Health.

"Health care is always a very competitive industry," he said. "Our job is to focus on our patients and our community. We've been here for a very long time and we don't plan on going anywhere. We plan on  growing as well."

Green said that several indicators point to an upswing at Westerly Hospital. While the facility lost money in 2018, the $4.2 million improvement in the bottom line was ahead of budget,  he said. The hospital's patient census  was up 8.2 percent in 2018 and the hospital's case mix index, a measure of a hospital's volume of patients by illness acuity, was up 4.6 percent. "That means we're keeping more of the higher acuity patients here in the local community not having to transfer them out to L+M or Yale New Haven Health," Green said

The patient case mix rose as a direct result of the hospital's success in recruiting additional specialists as well as a tele-medicine initiative that allows doctors at Yale in New Haven to monitor patients at Westerly in real time. "We are growing tremendously ... I'm very confident that we will get stronger with the investments we're making now and the recruitment efforts we're making now. Our future is very very bright," Green said.

Westerly Hospital's condition has been bolstered by the rest of the L+M system, which in addition to Westerly Hospital includes L+M Hospital in New London and the Visiting Nurse Association of Southeastern Connecticut. L+M Healthcare finished fiscal 2016 with a 6 percent operating loss and 2017 with a .1 percent loss. The system ended 2018 with a 3.5 percent positive margin despite Westerly's losses.

Green also pointed to improving employee engagement as a critical factor in Westerly Hospital's ongoing turnaround. The number of employees who took an employee survey administered by Press Ganey Associates improved from 52 percent last year to 76 percent in 2018.

"We're very proud of that," Green said. "It's an indication that our staff is starting to trust us. They're giving us feedback on how we can improve the work environment at Westerly Hospital. We still have a lot of work to do to continue to gain their trust and earn more credibility by delivering on what we say we're going to do, but we have a lot to be proud of."

Green attributed gains in employee engagement to the addition of jobs at the hospital, a sense of stability, settled union contracts, and the development of new training opportunities. "We want to allow them to focus on their passion, which is caring for others ... if they can feel happy and engaged and made to feel supported when they come to workm the patients are going to benefit from that."

dfaulkner@thewesterlysun.com

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