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UIHC wins approval for new Hospital in North Liberty
State panel approves project after opponents prevailed earlier
IOWA CITY — After hearing hours of ardent testimony about how a new $230 million University of Iowa Health Care facility in North Liberty would affect patients, community hospitals and UIHC’s mission, a state council Tuesday reversed a prior decision and this time approved the project to proceed.
Having narrowly denied the application in February — with three members voting against the 300,000-square-foot facility at Forevergreen Road and Highway 965 and two voting for it — the five-member State Health Facilities Council this time around, without discussion, voted 4-1 for the project.
“We are thankful for the patients, city leaders, referring hospitals, business owners, and other community members who provided nearly 70 letters of support and testimonials,” UIHC CEO Suresh Gunasekaran said. “Your support of our application helped illustrate our unique, statewide impact and our significant need for more capacity. We look forward to continuing to care for all Iowans and partnering with community hospitals across the state.”
Dozens of opponents who also wrote the state and spoke during a nearly nine-hour meeting against the project argued that UIHC resubmitted in a rushed fashion the “same” application just a few months after it was rejected.
Michelle Niermann, president and chief executive officer UnityPoint Health-Cedar Rapids, said the application still lacked imperative details.
“It's at the same location, it has the same lack of a meaningful long-range development plan, the same lack of collaboration without information as to why that's not possible,” Niermann said. “It has the same potentially detrimental impact to the community hospitals piece, what we're here to talk about today, and represents the same governmental entity competing with private enterprise and competing with community hospitals.”
She accused UIHC executives of misrepresenting their intentions and marketing directly to primary and secondary-care patients while saying they’re not looking to compete with community hospitals.
“The university is asking us not to feel threatened by this particular project, yet at the same time — every day — we see messages like these,” Niermann said, pointing to advertisements promoting UIHC as a provider for “the simple to the serious.”
“We believe Iowa’s health system, which is nationally recognized for … high quality, works best when community hospitals do the work we need to do in our communities and academic medical centers do the work that they need to do,” she said. “And you’re the entity that can protect that.”
Sean Williams, chief executive officer of Mercy Iowa City — UIHC’s nearest community hospital and competitor — accused the UIHC of purporting to need more room to meet complex care needs but handicapping itself in doing so by ramping up its primary and secondary care services.
“This particular project would be devastating to Mercy Iowa City,” Williams said. “I think it would be extremely harmful to the Corridor region. It over time would reduce options and reduce choice.”
But UIHC officials argued they value community providers and submitted a second, longer and more detailed application in hopes of better demonstrating a need to expand their main campus’ complex care, research and education mission on a site removed from the congested main campus.
“Being called a liar in public is not a favorable place to be,” Gunasekaran said. “But this is not a re-submittal of that last application. … Our prior application didn't even go into the specificity to say what our strategic intent was.
“That application didn't give this counsel enough specificity to actually determine whether we are proposing a community hospital or a hospital for complex care in North Liberty,” he said. “We failed. … Today we stand before you with an application with completely greater specificity that has been subject to the Board of Regents scrutiny, that has been subject to outside consultants.”
Josh Schamberger, president of the Iowa City/Coralville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, asked “how this certificate of need — of true patient need — has become more about how this affects Mercy Hospital’s pro forma and their ongoing financial challenges?”
“Iowa City’s Mercy Hospital is filled with great community doctors, nurses and staff,” he said. “But that’s not what this certificate of need is about. … This certificate of need is about need, and meeting the needs of Iowans.”
Also in support of the UIHC application, North Liberty City Council member and paramedic Brent Smith said he’s been “shocked” to hear opponents speak “so negatively” about UIHC.
“So negatively about the hospital they all rely on to help manage the most complicated patients,” Smith said. “How can they possibly stand in front of this board and claim they do not partner or collaborate with the University of Iowa hospital?”
Representatives from Iowa’s Attorney General’s Office and Board of Regents participated in Tuesday’s discussion on the re-upped UIHC application in hopes of addressing concerns that stood in the way of approval before.
“After reflecting on the hearing and your written decision, we realized that we could have helped clarify some misunderstandings and hopefully address some of your concerns,” Regent Sherry Bates said.
With Tuesday’s approval, UIHC has the state permission it needs to proceed in building a facility with capacity for 48 beds less than 10 miles from its main campus in Iowa City.
The project, which will require additional regent approval, is scheduled to debut in 2025.
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