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Expansion could make medical competitors sore

East County providers say a free-standing emergency room could drive up healthcare costs.

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  • | 11:00 a.m. July 6, 2016
Dr. Dean Christensen looks over a patient chart while walking through Lakewood Ranch Medical Center's emergency room.
Dr. Dean Christensen looks over a patient chart while walking through Lakewood Ranch Medical Center's emergency room.
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The expansion of Doctors Hospital of Sarasota into the Lakewood Ranch area has raised the ire of some area health care professionals who don’t see it as healthy competition.

Doctors Hospital of Sarasota has submitted plans to Manatee County to build a 10,820-square-foot, free-standing emergency room immediately west of Burger King, at the southeast corner of State Road 70 and Ranch Lake Boulevard, near the Wal-Mart.

Manatee County’s planning staff is seeking clarification as to whether the project will result in an urgent care center or an emergency room. The application states it seeks to build a “free-standing emergency room.”

“Doctors Hospital is exploring options to expand our emergency care to the growing I-75 corridor communities,” said Aimee Bennett, the director of marketing for Doctors Hospital, in an email. “We look forward to sharing more details about the project once we receive approvals from the state and county.”

Valerie Vale, executive director for the Manatee County Medical Society, which advocates for physicians, said her group opposes the plan on two levels. First, she said a stand-alone emergency room could transport patients to Doctors Hospital of Sarasota, past closer, well-equipped hospitals.

Second, Vale said it could mean a poaching of patients from Manatee County.

She also said preliminary discussions by both Manatee County government and the Manatee County School District to create exclusive employee on-site health care centers makes the thought of a new emergency room even more alarming.

“It’s uncomfortable, I’ll say, for the medical community, in that it could very drastically impact their private practices,” Vale said. “There is no evidence there is a shortage of physicians or walk-in or urgent care clinics in the East County area.

“There is a difference between a person, for whatever reason, choosing to go to a Sarasota hospital than someone who goes to a free-standing emergency room or urgent care center and is (transported) past the closest hospital to where they live.”

Dr. Aaron Sudbury, chief of staff at Lakewood Ranch Medical Center and a physician with Premier OBGYN, said Lakewood Ranch Medical Center’s emergency room is well equipped to handle existing and future populations.

“ER competition is good, in the sense you want to make sure they’re servicing their clientele with high quality,” Sudbury said. “Lakewood Ranch’s ER is not overburdened to the point you’d say there’s a need for further emergency services in that part of the county.”

Manatee County, overall, has been pushing to lower overall health care costs as it grapples with problems funding indigent health care. Having patients use urgent care centers, which can handle issues such as broken bones, strained muscles, infections and other non-life threatening ailments, takes the burden off emergency rooms and helps lower costs.

Sudbury said having a free-standing emergency room, however, does the opposite. The emergency room cost for treating a patient with a respiratory infection is between $3,000 and $5,000 compared with a primary care visit of up to about $150. An outpatient CT scan would cost about $3,000 compared to about $300, Sudbury said.

“Freestanding ER’s don’t reduce the cost of health care at all,” he said. “It feels and looks like urgent care, but it’s like going to the hospital. The cost is at the cost level of a hospital. Co-pays are higher and services are higher. We really don’t want patients to use emergency rooms unless they really need to.”

Vernon DeSear, a spokesman for Lakewood Ranch Medical Center and its parent Manatee Memorial Hospital, agreed.

“It seems counter productive to us,” he said. “We need to support our facilities and the physicians who practice here.”

Lee Whitehurst, an East County resident and deputy chief for East Manatee Fire Rescue, said he didn’t know whether Doctors’ proposed facility would be the type that accepts ambulances, but he sees an increase in options as a positive for the community.

“From my viewpoint, the more, the merrier,” he said.

Whitehurst said East County is fortunate to have Lakewood Ranch Medical Center nearby, but the number of emergency-type providers is limited compared with west Bradenton.

Bennett said the move would only benefit potential patients.

“Doctors Hospital provides care to many patients who live or work in Manatee County,” she said.   “The hospital recently completed a large on-campus ER expansion and is now exploring options to better serve the needs of our patients along this high growth corridor.”

DeSear said Lakewood Ranch Medical and Manatee Memorial are reserving judgement on Doctors Hospital’s application until the licensing and approval processes move forward.

“It’s a little premature until we know what’s going to happen,” he said.

Heather Kasten, executive director of the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance, declined specific comment on Doctors’ application, but said, overall, the greater Lakewood Ranch area is a robust community that is lucrative to businesses. Health care facilities tend to be “on the front end of growth.”

“I really think you’re going to see that across all businesses and all industries, not just health care,” she said.

East County residents have mixed feelings on the project, some saying the facility would provide more health care options for patients, while others believe the area has enough emergency room capacity, especially with urgent care centers nearby.

“Anything to better the community medically would probably be an advantage to the area,” Lakewood Ranch’s Jan DePelisi said. “I’m thinking it will be a good thing.”

Iris Croft, of Braden River Lakes, said it’s not necessary.

“Between Manatee Memorial and Lakewood Ranch Medical, we have pretty good coverage,” she said.


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