First of two parts
Seeking to win over neighbors opposed to a full-service hospital off Donald Ross Road in Alton, health-care giant Universal Health Services shaved its original plan for 450 beds to 300 and moved a proposed helipad farther from neighbors.
While opponents living in million-dollar Alton homes south of the hospital won’t publicly comment on the changes as negotiations with UHS are ongoing, questions still surround the need for a third full-service hospital in north county.
“There’s no need, in my opinion, for another hospital,” former Jupiter Medical Center CEO John Couris said in a recent interview. “If I was an Alton resident and I bought a million-dollar home only to find out a 120-bed hospital was going to be put in front of my community with helicopters and ambulance traffic over and above, I wouldn’t be happy about it.”
“There’s no reason for it. None,” he said. “We’re already overbedded. What you’ll hear from the chain is the community is growing.”
When asked to discuss the need for the project and the ability to find enough doctors and nurses to staff it, UHS Florida Vice President Kevin DiLallo responded with a brief statement:
“The need has been established based upon increasing population growth and local demographics, and we will staff appropriately, in accordance with industry and accrediting body standards,” he wrote.
He did not respond to follow-up questions or agree to an interview.
Couris is now CEO at Tampa General Hospital, which is making a major play in Palm Beach County by buying physician groups. But, he said, Tampa General is not interested in building a hospital here.
He pointed to occupancy rates published by the Florida Agency for Health Care Administration that show Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center at 64 percent occupancy in 2020 and Jupiter Medical Center at 57 percent. The full-service hospital with the highest occupancy rate in 2020 in Palm Beach County is UHS-owned Wellington Regional Medical Center, which is licensed for 235 beds.
No need to show need
As CEO at Jupiter Medical Center, Couris played a role in the 2013 defeat of a proposed 80-bed Tenet Healthcare hospital in Alton when a state administrative law judge ruled that Tenet failed to show a need for the project.
Proving need, however, is no longer a factor in building hospitals in Florida. The Florida Legislature scrapped the requirement in 2019. Instead, the Alton proposal, which is still undergoing planning review, merely must obtain site-plan approval from the Palm Beach Gardens City Council.
Couris criticized the project proposed by UHS, which owns Wellington Regional and 25 other hospitals nationwide.
“They want to steal volume from Palm Beach Gardens and Jupiter (medical centers). They want to capitalize on the great payer mix and the great demographic,” he said, referring to the aging nature of the local population and the wealth of patients, most of whom are insured or covered by Medicare and supplemental insurance.
If UHS is trying to fill a need, Couris suggested they open a hospital in the Glades.
Gulf Coast planner link to SaveAlton.com?
His statements echoed those on an anonymous website SaveAlton.com, which launched a political-campaign style attack to blast the UHS proposal, claiming the hospital would ruin Alton, a 2,700-home community. Couris said he did not know the website existed.
There’s no proof of ownership of SaveAlton.com and a lawyer for neighbors has denied backing it. The best clue as to who might be behind the site are two Palm Beach Gardens planning documents that were posted on the site, along with two documents concerning the defeat of the Tenet hospital in 2013.
Pergolizzi made three separate requests for documents to the city relating to the proposed medical center, public records reveal, including the two documents posted on the SaveAlton website. After failing to respond to several phone calls to discuss his interest in the project, he answered one call on March 8 long enough to say “Hey, listen. I’m not going to be able to talk to you, all right?” and hung up.
150 beds in hospital’s first phase, down from 270
Review of the hospital proposal has centered on city planners’ concerns, often aligned with the concerns of neighbors who retained lawyer Gary Brandenburg to argue on their behalf.
The hospital abuts one of Alton’s higher-end neighborhoods along Machiavelli Way, where home prices average about $1.2 million each and at least a dozen home sites are for sale by Kolter Homes, the developer that sold UHS the hospital site in February 2021 for $32 million.
Brandenburg issued a scathing critique of the UHS plan in a July 2021 letter to the city.
After Brandenburg died on Feb. 2, his son, Dylan, took over the case. He said March 10 his clients and UHS are in talks to find an acceptable approach but he could not provide details.
In the updated proposal, UHS moved the seven-story hospital from the south portion of the site to the north, putting it 900 feet from the residences on Machiavelli Way.
It initially would open with 150 beds but leave all of the sixth and seventh floors vacant and half of the fifth floor, allowing enough space to add an additional 150 beds. Initially, UHS proposed 270 beds in the first phase.
And UHS, represented by land planners Urban Design Studio, shifted the loading dock, generators and food service to the hospital’s northwest side, providing “separate ‘Front of House/Back of House’ segregated flow patterns to enhance the overall patient experience,” it said in a response to the city.
UHS doubles southern landscape buffer
On the southern portion of the 32-acre property, 423 feet from the southern property line, UHS is proposing a four-story, 80,000-square-foot medical office building, which would be closed at night. It retained the right to build a second, 80,000-square-foot medical office building.
While required to install a 25-foot landscape buffer on the south property line, the same amount already provided behind homes fronting Machiavelli Way, UHS proposes doubling the buffer to 50 feet. It would include a six-foot berm, a six-foot wall and feature 20-foot-tall live oaks, southern red cedar, dahoon holly, wax myrtle and cabbage palms.
UHS moved the helipad to the northern edge of the site, closer to the Carrier building and up against Interstate 95, and promised it would have no fueling, maintenance or repair operations or overnight aircraft parking. The purpose would be “to expressly serve the hospital for medical matters only,” UHS wrote in a Feb. 1 submission to the city.
Original architecture not good enough
A May 2021 economic impact study for UHS by PFM Group Consulting of Orlando calculates that the project’s initial phase would support 1,392 permanent jobs with wages of $97.8 million. It calculated the taxable value of the project after phase one as $145 million, which it referred to as less than half of construction costs. The city would get about $805,000 in tax payments a year.
City planning staff criticized the building’s architecture, saying in March 2021 that “the overall architectural design … is very underwhelming and significantly below city staff’s expectations.”
Planners recommended that hospital designers ESa Architects of Nashville, Tenn., review the Carrier building, under-construction Florida Power & Light office building and the DiVosta Towers near the Gardens Mall. “As submitted, planners wrote, the architecture “is not supported by city staff.”
Replying that the architecture had been redesigned for the February submittal, UHS said the buildings “will present a modern and contemporary facade representing the latest delivery models for healthcare.”
At the building’s upper levels, visible from Interstate 95, UHS said the building “is designed to present a modern destination for healthcare.” At the lower levels, “the human element is introduced with the use of stone and airport-style canopies to reduce the scale of the building.”
In a March 4 response, city staff termed the revised plans “significantly improved.”
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