It takes a city to save a hospital; reaction to WVU Medicine expansion plans

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Jun. 8—FAIRMONT — The closure of Fairmont Regional Medical Center was a surprise to many, but some saw its closure inevitable and worked to bring it back before it was ever gone.

The first sign of danger for FRMC came in September 2019 when news of a 25-employee layoff was announced as "restructuring." Five months later, in February 2020, the community's fears manifested in the form of a letter to FRMC's 528 employees announcing the facilities closure in 60 days.

"We saw this coming," said Tina Shaw, president of the Marion County Chamber of Commerce.

When the pandemic hit in force in March 2020, the realization of the need for a local care facility was more obvious than ever and WVU Medicine reopened FRMC as Fairmont Medical Center, a campus of J.W. Ruby Memorial Hospital on June 30, 2020.

Nearly a year since WVU Medicine entered into the mix, the company's President and CEO Albert Wright Jr. and Gov. Jim Justice announced the next chapter in life of Fairmont's hospital last Friday.

"This is something we wanted [WVU Medicine] to do from the first time that we met with them, which was in the governor's office in November of 2019," Shaw said.

On Friday, Wright unveiled a $110 million, multi-year expansion and rebuilding project at the campus on Locust Avenue that includes adding new operating rooms, 40 new inpatient beds and other upgrades. The first thing to be developed is a new central energy plant to install new boilers and chillers for the campus. WVU Medicine also will add 30 skilled nursing beds for which it already has been granted a certificate of need from the state.

"It's absolutely exceptional to see WVU Medicine investing in our community," said Mike Angelucci, administrator of Marion County Rescue Squad. "When we saw Fairmont Regional Medical Center closing... Tina Shaw put together a group of community leaders. We worked together and reached out to anyone who would listen. We had to do what we needed to, to save our hospital."

After many meetings with the governor, representatives, WVU Medicine and others, the group considers Friday's news as a triumph, showing their efforts were not in vain.

WVU Medicine had previously announced a new, 10-bed hospital would be built from the ground up on a plot of land near the Gateway Connector, where it has a 25,000 square foot outpatient center. The original plan was to use the Locust Avenue facility only temporarily.

"Our hope was always for [WVU Medicine] to take over the current facility [on Locust Avenue]," Shaw said. "What they're doing now was our hope to begin with. To put the money in the facility, stay where it's at and keep local jobs."

The $110 million investment shows those original plans were scrapped and it adds to the progress being made to improve the quality of life in Marion County.

"We're very excited any time an organization is willing to come into our county and make a large investment and back that investment up with, not just money, but people," said Jonathan Board, chair of the Marion County Chamber of Commerce. "We're also excited when that investment comes with a certain number of jobs."

The estimated total number of jobs at the new facility will be 550.

A major benefit of WVU's investment is the importance of having a hospital in the middle of Marion County that services the surrounding areas in a local facility.

"It's so important that we have a hospital in Marion County," Angelucci said. "We saw nearly a 65% decline in our [911] call volume. There were less people calling 911 for an ambulance last spring because of COVID and because our hospital closed."

Many citizens of Marion County, especially seniors, were hesitant to call 911 because the closest hospitals were a county away.

"Since having the hospital reopen in Fairmont, we've seen our call volume rebound to our normal levels," Angelucci said.

"This time last year there were people concerned about the status of the hospital," said Fairmont Mayor Tom Mainella. "I think its good news what WVU is doing, and what Mon Health is doing."

Mon Health System is transforming part of the old Middletown Mall that will become home to a 10-bed hospital there.

Reach David Kirk at 304-367-2522 or by email at dkirk@timeswv.com.

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