DUNKIRK — Back in 2019, former Brooks Memorial Hospital president and CEO Richard Ketcham expressed confusion and dismay about the hospital’s process for constructing a new facility.
Three years later, in a fresh interview Thursday, Ketcham said nothing has changed.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
“The most important point is we definitely need a viable full-service hospital in our area, for the health and economic needs of our community,” he said. “I do think the board members are good people who want to do what they believe is right, and I don’t believe they are recommending a location (in Fredonia) because that is where many of them live.
“However, I still don’t understand why the hospital — especially if it’s only going to be 15 beds — can’t be rebuilt in its current location.”
Ketcham said the current hospital’s outpatient radiology wing, constructed in 1990, was built with an expansion in mind.
“There were footers put in, there were steels put in, the elevator was put in to go up to four additional stories. We spent a lot of money to prepare for that… at that point we thought we’d need a much bigger facility.
“Each floor was designed to hold 16 inpatient beds. I find it interesting the hospital’s talking about, last number I heard, 15 beds. In my mind that could be accommodated on one floor.
“Clearly, the hospital needs tremendous amounts of work — but that particular portion does not. So what I think would make a lot of sense would be to build up, then knock down much, if not all, of the remaining parts of the existing hospital and rebuild it. It’s a complex process, but it happens every day in hospitals across the country.
“Why that can’t be done has never been explained to the community. It has also never been explained why and how this new site was chosen.” He still thinks the location, off East Main Street across from Fredonia Central School, is poor because of heavy traffic in the area.
Ketcham thinks if the hospital must move, locations along Route 60 in the town of Dunkirk would be better. He said a dental office just opened Monday on one of the sites he thought might work.
“Maybe all (the sites) were all considered, and maybe they were all discarded. But how would anyone know? And that’s what is so frustrating, on this and many other issues, there’s just no communication.
“At the end of the day, no matter what specifics we’re talking about, that is the No. 1 issue with this board and this administration, the absolute lack of communication — which is totally unacceptable for a community hospital. I just don’t understand it.”
Ketcham also questions what the plan is for its current Central Avenue building, when and if Brooks moves out.
“I’m also extremely concerned about what’s going to happen to the current building if Brooks leaves. The same issues with the building, if it’s abandoned, will remain. Absent the government coming with financial support, no investor can take the building and do what needs to be done with it, because it’s just not financially viable.
“An abandoned building of that size in downtown Dunkirk, on Central Avenue, is just a disaster. There is no easy reuse.”
SO WHY ISN’T IT GETTING BUILT?
Hospital officials have said the Fredonia project is on hold until then state releases more than $70 million in grants that was promised for the project in 2018. They have also stated that COVID-19 pandemic threw the project off kilter.
“Frankly, I think there’s much more to it than that,” Ketcham said.
He noted how a new hospital in Utica — with $375 million in state money — has been under construction throughout the pandemic. Ketcham, now retired, led a hospital in Utica after leaving Brooks in 2009 and was deeply involved in the process of getting the new facility constructed.
“The argument, to me, that you can’t get the New York State Department of Health to pay attention or focus on the project during COVID, because that’s all they’re talking about is COVID, I strongly disagree with,” he said. “The hospital (in Utica) has moved along well. In fact, two weeks ago, I toured it.”
He said the Utica hospital’s CEO and top financial officer confirmed to him they had no problems with money flow from the state.
Ketcham speculates that state officials want more information from Brooks officials about their plans.
“The hospital is losing $5 (million) to $10 million a year…for the last four or five years. In my opinion, the state is looking for a business plan that makes sense. What they don’t want to do is put $75 million into a new hospital, then still have to subsidize it by $5 (million) to $10 million a year.
“My supposition is that the state is looking for a business plan that says, ‘look, the new hospital will be more efficient, for sure.’ But it’s not going to be more efficient by $500,000 or $1 million a month. So, what can you demonstrate, what business plan can you present, to which will give the state confidence that you can get this thing, most years, to break even.”
Ketcham acknowledged the financial atmosphere is “harder today than it was then,” when he was CEO.
“What can be done to have the hospital be more financially viable? It’s hard for me to state not sitting in the chair, but I will say this, and this is a fact: surgery, particularly orthopedic surgery, and outpatient radiology — CAT scan, MRI, ultrasound, mammography — these are the departments that make money … unfortunately, surgery, and more recently radiology, has been declining.
“I see those revenue and profitable departments shrinking. And again, I don’t hear any plan going forward. … I don’t think you can shrink your way to greatness.”
Ketcham closed by reiterating that the community needs an improved hospital, regardless of location.
“A new or significantly upgraded hospital, is absolutely essential to northern Chautauqua County, and I sure hope it happens soon,” he said.
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