Health care growth in Centre County continues to be prominent

mmorgan@centredaily.comFebruary 9, 2013 

  • Facility expansions by the numbers


    Project: Operating room expansion

    Size: 60,000 square feet of additional space at the center and transitioning pain management services to facility at the intersection of Old Gatesburg Road and Blue Course Drive.

    Total cost: $36 million plus costs for equipment


    Project: Ambulatory surgical center

    Size: 80,000 square feet at the facility and adding more treatment programs to the Scenery Park location

    Total cost: $42 million

Health care in Centre County is a growing commodity.

With Geisinger Health System’s $42 million, 80,000-square-foot addition to its Gray’s Woods facility, Mount Nittany Medical Center’s new Cancer Pavilion and operating room expansion and Penn State Hershey’s continued and rapidly growing local outreach, the future of health care in the county looks bright.

The growth has come in the form of major projects under way as well, with all health care providers expanding services and increasing their reach of programs dating back before the recession.

The Great Recession

While other industries suffered major setbacks when the recession hit in 2008, the health care industry locally and nationally largely continued to grow.

Mount Nittany CEO and President Steve Brown wouldn’t say the field is recession-proof, but he acknowledged the medical center was much less hard-hit than many other areas of business.

“We haven’t seen any radical changes that we could point to a recession here,” he said. “It’s been a pretty normal couple of years.”

Brown did acknowledge that the medical center was affected in a similar way to other industries during the recession: expenditures for supplies and gasoline, for instance, increased.

Geisinger saw some softer demand institution-wide throughout the state, and Regional Medical Director Raymond Nungesser said Centre County was no different. Geisinger has facilities across the eastern half of the state.

The company didn’t make cuts but saw a decline in patient visits across all the locations because people wouldn’t seek as much preventative care if they didn’t have money to pay for it.

“When our schedules weren’t filled, it was always easy to blame the economy,” he said. “We think that was true.”

But Nungesser said the local facilities rebounded in the past year. The centers are seeing more business and demand for increased hours. He said Geisinger is continuing to grow and develop practices.

Penn State impact

Brown said an important reason Mount Nittany wasn’t hit as hard is its proximity to Penn State.

Centre County’s unemployment rate stayed among the lowest in Pennsylvania, and the low jobless rate reflected a higher number of insured patients, he said. The county peaked at a 6.4 percent unemployment rate, while the state average rose to 8.7 percent.

“People (that live in Centre County) have insurance. People have jobs,” Brown said. “So all of that helps to throw a little insulation in there as far as any kind of recessionary things.”

He characterized having Penn State nearby as “huge.” He said the university is the health system’s largest customer and payer, and a boon to all area businesses.

That’s one reason Brown wanted to ensure he had a good relationship with the university when he started in 2010. By July, Mount Nittany will have 19 full-time medical students, and the hospital continues to work closely with University Park and Penn State Hershey’s University Park Regional Campus.

Brown said this relationship also helps address what has become the largest need in the medical industry — primary care physicians.

“By having a residency program right here in State College and family practice, we’re essentially growing our own primary care physicians here because the majority of residents will stay where they received their training,” he said.

And that partnership has helped to increase the quality of care, said Hershey’s Eugene Marsh, the Penn State College of Medicine senior associate dean of the University Park Regional Campus.

The work Mount Nittany, Penn State and Geisinger do in collaboration helps provide affordable care and cost-effective methods, he said.

He added the most effective care is not necessarily the best care, and the providers need to collectively try to provide the best care at the best price.

“There’s much more to be gained by the patients.” Marsh said. “I really feel like we’re all on the same page.”

Marsh said the university doesn’t work as closely with Geisinger but praised the medical system’s innovation, specifically in electronic medical records and its positive reputation.

Nungesser said Geisinger cares for many Penn State employees and students and the university is an integral part of the business despite not having a close relationship with the school.

“I think most of us probably were attracted to jobs in State College and Centre County because of the university,” he said. “So we certainly want to see the good things continue to occur.”

Local competition

The health care services offered by the two entities aren’t completely the same, and the local medical facilities work together in some capacity, but the feeling of competition is still there, Brown said.

But he looks at it as a positive development.

“Competition is good,” he said. “If there were no competition sometimes we get a little lackadaisical and take things for granted.”

While Mount Nittany provides the vast majority of inpatient services, the competition for outpatient care is much more evident.

Brown said Penn State Hershey regional medical school and Geisinger provide many of the same out-patient services that Mount Nittany provides.

Out-patient services are tests or medical procedures that can be done without an overnight stay.

Despite that competition, Brown said the hospital has a good relationship with Geisinger as well as Penn State Hershey’s University Park Regional Campus. He said Geisinger has a hospitalist program that operates out of the facility, and Geisinger physicians make up about a third of the medical staff.

Mount Nittany Health System employs 2,004 people, while Geisinger has 519 local employees and Penn State Hershey regional medical center has about 50 physicians and 150 staff.

“Both of these are competitors and colleagues,” Brown said, adding that having multiple facilities is better for the community because it provides residents with choices.

Future expansion

Geisinger’s major project on the books — the $42 million, 80,000-square-foot ambulatory surgery center — will allow for a vast expansion over the work already being done at Scenery Park, and it will make the Gray’s Woods facility the “surgical home” for Geisinger in the county. That facility is scheduled to open in February 2014.

This new wing will provide more space at Scenery Park, resulting in expansion of programs there such as dermatology, neurology and oncology, which will be completed in the next three years, Associate Vice President of Operations Matthew Nussbaum said.

Those two projects will complete the plans laid forth in 2006, and Nussbaum said future growth in Centre County has not yet been decided.

Mount Nittany’s biggest current project also will be finished in the early part of 2014.

The hospital will be adding five operating rooms in addition to the seven that are there already, which Brown said is space that is desperately needed. He said there will be space for five more on top of that if demand increases.

In recent years, Mount Nittany has grown from a hospital to a health system employing more physicians all over the county.

Brown said the next major project likely will be the creation of a family practice home for the new residency program that is slated to begin in 2016.

The projects that Mount Nittany will focus on going forward will be based on community need and growth projections, spokeswoman Nichole Monica said.

“We need to be sure that we are appropriately using our resources.” she said. “These projects are things we know our community needs here, now, based on volume and what we’re able to provide locally.”

Those decisions are made based on feedback from people all over the county, Brown said. The hospital sought out the feedback from random members of the community and tried to implement projects that came out of the meetings.

Penn State Hershey’s regional medical growth largely has taken place in the past two years.

Expanding from family and orthopedic care in the past, Hershey now offers services that include cardiology, dermatology, gastroenterology, neurology, neurosurgery, vascular surgery and pediatrics, Marsh said.

The reasons for the local expansion are increasing access to care for Penn State employees, developing educational programs and the training of medical students as residents, he said.

In the future, the university will continue to work closely with Mount Nittany, increasing those residency programs and giving students more chances to learn.

Marsh said the infrastructure being developed by all of the local health entities will set up the county well.

“I think the future looks very bright both for the community and the care that the patients will be receiving,” he said.

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