LifeBridge Health will begin unveiling this week upgrades and other improvements it pledged just over a year ago when it bought the former Bon Secours Hospital, long a linchpin in the health of West Baltimore.
Area residents had been unsure of what to expect but didn’t want to give up any crucial medical care or community support even though the facility was financially struggling. In fact, they wanted more.
“Like every community when there is a takeover or buyout or merger with an existing community partner, there is a level of concern, especially when the partner has been actively engaged in the overall life the community,” said Rodney Morton, senior pastor of Central Baptist Church, just across West Baltimore Street from what is now Grace Medical Center.
“Bon Secours was an extremely wonderful partner,” he said. “I can simply say that the relationship with LifeBridge and Grace has certainly lived up to its name.”
Morton said he’d keep watching, but, so far, LifeBridge is making good on its pledges, modernizing the emergency room, surgical suites and medical offices, and bringing in specialists such as a long-sought pediatrician and OB-GYN.
Morton plans to participate in a virtual “community celebration” of the first phase of the improvements at 11 a.m. Monday, the same day the upgraded surgical suites and doctors’ offices will open. The emergency room opened Tuesday. The webcast will include video tours, and remarks are expected from Mayor Brandon Scott.
LifeBridge is spending $85 million on the hospital and improvements, which includes developing a separate, 20,000-square-foot outpatient behavioral health building slated to open in a second phase of improvements in 2023.
The hospital system did move some Bon Secours services to its other facilities, taking a significant portion of the staff with them. It reduced the number of beds at the facility to 27 from 69. The employee head count dropped to 450 from 700.
A LifeBridge spokeswoman, Sharon Boston, said staff who did not find positions at other hospitals chose to retire or seek positions elsewhere.
As a requirement of the sale, LifeBridge will fund community activities such as job training, mentoring and food access through an affiliated foundation called the West Baltimore Renaissance Foundation. A community resources center is planned in the neighborhood near Grace.
The hospital was founded by the Sisters of Bon Secours, who continue to provide other housing and workforce services through Bon Secours Community Works, spun off into its own entity years ago. They have said they support the acquisition. So did many state leaders, who sometimes oppose mergers that can decrease competition, because they wanted to ensure West Baltimore continued to receive services.
Bon Secours traditionally served a large poor and minority population.
Rebecca Altman, vice president and chief integration officer at LifeBridge, said officials have been working to keep the trust of regular patients but also reach others in the neighborhood, which Morton said suffers from “every health disparity.”
Altman said the changes were done in consultation with the community, with specialists splitting time between Grace and other LifeBridge hospitals including its flagship Sinai Hospital in North Baltimore. LifeBridge, among the state’s largest health systems, also includes Carroll and Northwest hospitals and Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital.
As needs are more fully assessed, Altman said, more full-time medical staff could be added.
So far, Grace will get an OB-GYN, pediatrician, ophthalmologist and orthopedic specialists. More services will be added on an outpatient basis, including for endocrinology, vascular, urology, podiatry, gastrointestinal and infectious diseases.
The hospital also will get 3D mammography.
“In the time leading up to LifeBridge Health’s acquisition of Grace Medical Center, we talked to members of our community about what medical specialties they wanted us to bring in,” said Dr. Arsalan Sheikh, an endocrinologist and chief medical officer at Grace, in a statement. “Consistently, a pediatrician and an OB/GYN topped their requests, so those physicians are already seeing patients at Grace and will move into the renovated third-floor clinic space.”
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The nonprofit provider Health Care for the Homeless will operate a West Baltimore clinic in the building.
In the new emergency department, which opened Tuesday, there will be 27 state-of-the-art treatment rooms, a new lobby and ambulance entrance, negative pressure rooms for those suspected of COVID-19 and other infections, and a designated pod for those with behavioral health concerns. It will have its own CT scanner for rapid diagnosis of heart attacks and strokes.
The emergency department serves as a main entry point for the hospital — an average of 20,000 patients visit the emergency room annually. From there, Altman said, the hospital will work to get patients upstairs to other doctors and specialists.
For surgery, there will be two new operating rooms and new pre- and postoperative areas.
Morton said he understood Grace couldn’t have every service, such as comprehensive cancer care, given space, financial constraints and competing services at other city hospitals, but he said he hoped other services would be added in the future.
He was glad that LifeBridge would continue funding community services. In support, the hospital will have a care manager and nurse navigator to help with “holistic” services. There also will be a community outreach coordinator to spread information about resources and disease management.
“They have been a partner that so far has been willing to listen,” Morton said. “With all the horrible things happening, when I drive into West Baltimore daily and see the imprint and the impact that LifeBridge is making, it offers a breath of fresh air on a familiar canvas.”