CLARKSBURG -- United Hospital Center officials say the approval of their $265 million relocation plan to Interstate 79 need not mean Marion County is left without a new facility of its own.
UHC President Bruce Carter said he could see a small downtown Fairmont hospital being built as part of a merger agreement that UHC still desires to make with Fairmont General Hospital. He said such a critical-access facility could include both inpatient and outpatient services that would complement more comprehensive care offered by the new UHC to the south and an expanded West Virginia University Hospitals to the north.
"We've offered that and more," Carter said, noting the downtown possibility was floated before the UHC approval. "We've met with their representatives, including as recently as a couple months ago."
While Fairmont General President Richard Graham said Friday that anything less than a full-service hospital would be unacceptable, he previously has said a downtown facility would make such a move more desirable.
Fairmont General officials ardently opposed UHC's relocation, claiming UHC and its sister hospital at WVU are trying to squeeze Marion County out of the hospital business. Fairmont General also wants to relocate to a $100 million new facility on I-79, a proposal that is linked to its purchase by the for-profit Triad Hospitals Inc. of Texas.
Triad officials were unavailable to comment on the merger option on Friday.
Carter is not alone in pondering a downtown Fairmont facility, however.
Tom Jones, president of UHC and WVU Hospitals' parent system, said the region is large enough to justify both a new UHC and a scaled-down Fairmont presence.
"We remain open to exploring ways that we can work together with Fairmont General Hospital and the people of Marion County," Jones said, adding he would like the opportunity to sit down and discuss what the needs are.
Sonia Chambers, chair of the state Health Care Authority that would have to approve a merger or a new downtown hospital, said she is also intrigued by the idea. The authority approved the UHC plan but continues to openly prefer a merger.
"I think the board would be very interested in seeing something like that," Chambers said of the small hospital in particular. "That would provide access to folks in Marion County without necessarily duplicating all of the other services.
"I have been told that a proposition like that would be very cost-effective."
Cost-effectiveness is the major reason the authority wants a merger. Chambers has consistently said the board will not approve multiple big-ticket projects in a single region because of their impact on health-care costs.
Another wooing strategy UHC may also use to reopen talks with Fairmont General is 50 percent ownership and 50 percent of board seats for a merged facility. That possibility was also raised prior to UHC's project approval.
One thing Carter said is definitely not on the table is the location of the new hospital, however. With an approved plan and purchased land in hand, he said the facility will definitely be built at the intersection of I-79 and W.Va. 279.
That site, near the FBI fingerprint center entrance, is close to the Marion County border but is in Harrison County. Carter said the site is preferable to anything else up and down the corridor because of the major utility infrastructure that has already been installed for the FBI.
"The door's still open," Carter said of other negotiating points that could be raised. "(But) it takes two to tango and if that's not acceptable to them we'll understand."
Regional Editor Nora Edinger can be reached at 626-1447 or by e-mail at email@example.com.