By DOTTY NIST
“We do not support this in any way,” a Healthmark Regional Medical Center representative recently told county commissioners in reference to new plans for the U.S. 331 expansion project that had been announced by the Florida Department of Transportation (DOT) three weeks earlier.
Healthmark Regional spokesman Ron Kelley brought this message to the Walton County Board of County Commissioners (BCC) at its Aug. 12 regular meeting at the South Walton Annex.
On July 22, DOT District 3 Secretary Tommy Barfield had come before the BCC with an update on DOT’s ongoing U.S. 331 four-laning project. The update had included the announcement that, due to difficulties in obtaining property from Healthmark in connection with the project, DOT would be removing a one-mile section adjacent to the hospital from the current contract for that portion of the highway project.
Barfield had explained that the one-mile section would be redesigned to shift the project as much as possible to the west in order to reduce impact on the hospital. Transitions from four lanes to two lanes in the one mile section would be included, Barfield had continued, at substantial added cost. Upon completion of that redesign, he had told the commissioners, DOT would approach the hospital to attempt to obtain the property still needed for the project. Work on the one-mile section would be bid separately, Barfield had commented. He had also indicated that the decision to remove and deal with the one-mile section separately could delay the completion of the highway project by as much as two years.
Barfield had also said that the decision had been due to “the importance of the hospital and trying to give them some consideration to the impacts to their facilities….”
Apparently no one from Healthmark Regional had been present for Barfield’s presentation, and on Aug. 12 Kelley indicated that the hospital had not learned of the information presented by Barfield prior to the DOT secretary’s appearance before the BCC. Kelley said DOT had not advised the hospital on the decision in advance of announcement.
Looking back over Healthmark Regional’s interaction with DOT over the project in recent years, Kelley told the commissioners that the hospital’s concern in connection with the widening of U.S. 331 was and had always been “the negative impact on health care for north Walton County citizens.”
Healthmark Regional, he said, had not been able to support DOT’s plans for the road project due to the hospital’s opposition to any plan that negatively impacts its ability to provide health care services “to this community.”
Kelley told the commissioners that Healthmark Regional had tried to reach a compromise with DOT on the issue. He said hospital representatives had told DOT repeatedly that the plans presented to them about a year and a half ago, and also any of the plans presented subsequently to the hospital, would negatively impact the health care of the community “during construction and in the years to come.”
Kelley explained that, in all the plans presented, DOT “failed to use” the existing two-lane road bed as part of the four-lane system. There is “simply not enough space available” to put four lanes of traffic, plus median and turn lanes “on what is currently hospital property,” Kelley asserted.
This would not leave enough room for the hospital to grow to meet its existing plans to expand to meet the future health care needs of the community, he continued.
Kelley said that DOT had indicated that alignment plans for the highway expansion had not changed since the plans were completed in 1996. “Our hospital was built in 1999, and it appears that at no time during the last 15 years did DOT update its plans or take our presence and location into consideration,” he charged.
From what Healthmark Regional has heard, Kelley explained, the recently-announced plan would not remove the negative impact to health care and would also delay completion of the project and “create another bottleneck of traffic.”
“We do not support this in any way,” he emphasized.
“This entire issue should have been resolved long ago and should absolutely be resolved without additional delay to this project. We strongly oppose any plan that both negatively impacts health care in our community and delays the completion of this project,” Kelley emphasized.
He said that since learning of the new plan Healthmark Regional had told DOT that the negative impact to their facility in connection with the new plan is “not substantially different” from that associated with the plans previously presented to the hospital.
Healthmark Regional, Kelley said, does not understand why DOT would not “simply move forward” with its 2013 plan, thus avoiding the delay associated with the new plan and not creating “more traffic bottlenecks.”
The hospital, Kelley noted, had endorsed a plan drawn by their own engineers that would encroach on hospital property but would also protect “the people’s health care now and in the future.”
“DOT chose not to move forward with that plan,” Kelley told the commissioners.
He concluded with the observation that Healthmark Regional is the only facility of its kind within about a 30-mile radius and has served as primary health care provider for that area for over 22 years.
“So no matter what DOT decides to do, we will continue to serve the citizens of north Walton County,” Kelley pledged.
District 3 Commissioner Bill Imfeld thanked Kelley for his remarks and added that the BCC had heard many “stories” about the matter that he had addressed. “Some of us,” Imfeld continued, were told that DOT had tried to obtain additional property for the hospital that could be used to expand the facility. He asked Kelley if this had been the case.
“Never happened,” Kelley responded. “I wish it had; that would be wonderful.”
Imfeld said a newspaper had recently reported a plan to shift the highway project 80 feet to reduce impact on the hospital. He asked if DOT had talked to the hospital about doing this.
“Not directly,” Kelley responded. He indicated that the hospital had also seen the news report. He said what was described sounded very similar to a proposal that DOT had brought to Healthmark Regional about eight months ago which would not have provided any relief to the hospital.
Asked if there were discussions between DOT and the hospital, Kelley said there had been numerous discussions and that another one was planned for later in the month.
By DOTTY NIST