BELFAST — It’s a measure of modern medicine that Waldo County General Hospital is spending $12 million to add 50,000 square feet to its building, but the number of beds — 45 — will stay the same.
That’s because the thousands of MBNA employees down the road, and the hundreds of retirees flocking to Belfast, are needing more attention from the nearly 100-year-old hospital but are less likely to stay the night.
So the renovation, which seems to be engulfing the red brick building on Northport Avenue, is designed to fix inefficiencies and make health care a bit more comfortable for the area’s growing population.
“Almost every department gets new or additional space,” said Mark Biscone, the hospital’s executive director, during a tour of the expansion last week.
When Biscone became executive director in 1983, the hospital had seven physicians on staff. Now it has 40.
“A lot has to do with making the areas more private and more acceptable to our patients. We’re very cramped,” he said.
The project is expected to be completed by May 2001, when the hospital will celebrate its centennial. The original Belfast Hospital was founded in 1901 on upper High Street — before X-rays, penicillin or Medicare.
The project will nearly double the size of the present hospital. The plan calls for a complete renovation of 30,000 square feet of the hospital’s medical service areas, adding 50,000 square feet to the physical plant.
It won’t add beds, but the project will convert those that are in semiprivate rooms to private. Each of the 45 private rooms will have full bathrooms, and electrical outlets will be upgraded to handle increasingly powerful monitoring equipment.
Waiting rooms will be added for the X-ray department and laboratory. The emergency room and maternity unit will be expanded.
The state Department of Human Services approved the project a year ago. Work began this spring.
“It certainly is an ambitious project and is more than overdue,” Brad Ronco of the DHS development division said last week. “The hospital has certainly needed this for some time.”
It has been 16 years since Waldo County General underwent an expansion, Biscone said. At that time, the county was in the middle of the demise of its anchor industries — shoe manufacturing and poultry processing. As a result, many of the things the hospital requested were rejected by the state because of the uncertainty of the region’s economic future.
“The state didn’t allow us to do what was needed at that time because they were unsure of our position. The state views Belfast very differently today. They see the need without our having to analyze that need,” Biscone said.
Biscone said the change in the area’s health care needs was brought about in large part by the arrival in Belfast of MBNA New England in the early 1990s. MBNA is the world’s largest credit card company and has attracted nearly 3,000 employees to its Belfast customer service center.
Those new employees have spawned a population boomlet in Waldo County, which now has about 36,000 residents. In addition, Belfast has experienced an influx of middle-aged and retirement-aged residents who need health services.
Biscone said the change in the county’s demographics has caused an increase in demand for services. The hospital’s service area is projected to grow 27 percent within the next year and 62 percent by 2005.
The hospital is recruiting a cardiologist and urologist and will need another family practitioner in the next two years.
Biscone described Waldo County General as a community hospital that can provide 96 percent of the services offered by the largest hospitals, such as Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. The Belfast hospital is the only one in Maine with an inpatient hospice unit and one of a handful that provides kidney dialysis services.
While some other Maine hospitals have experienced financial difficulties in recent years, Waldo County General has continually remained in the black. This past year the hospital recorded a gain of $699,188 on gross revenues of $38 million. The hospital’s net worth has grown from $2 million in 1978 to $40 million.
Biscone credited the community with the hospital’s stability.
“It’s been a big change from 1978 to now,” Biscone said. “We have seen some modest operating gain, but it was philanthropy that started this hospital and spread it through its history, and it will be philanthropy that will continue it through the long run.”
But the philanthropy probably won’t come courtesy of Uncle Sam.
At the recent annual meeting of the hospital’s incorporators, Biscone predicted that changes in health care reimbursement brought about by 1997 legislation will be “like an A-bomb being dropped on our nation’s health care system.”
Congress passed a balanced budget measure in 1997 that reduced the amount of Medicare reimbursement for home health care visits and is forcing hospitals to look for savings in other areas if they want to continue to support patients at home.
“These changes are going to force [us] into some cost-cutting and belt-tightening,” Biscone said. “We have always kept our hospital charges below the state and national average, and we’ve always been price competitive.
“Now we’ll have to be looking at even more things to keep costs down,” he said.
But as the renovation nears completion, Biscone is optimistic: “I think the hospital is at least in a better position than some others may be to try and deal with what’s coming at us in the next few years.”