An ongoing battle with the state for a neonatal intensive care unit led LewisGale Medical Center to launch a petition last week to document community support for the effort.
Collecting signatures comes as LewisGale has filed a new application asking Virginia Department of Health Commissioner Karen Remley for permission to open an eight-bassinet NICU. She denied an identical request last year, saying that the addition of NICU services at LewisGale would unnecessarily duplicate and harm existing services available for the tiniest patients.
LewisGale’s chief competitor, Carilion Clinic, operates a NICU with 60 bassinets at Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital. Carilion opposes LewisGale’s effort to open a NICU, and Carilion spokesman Eric Earnhart said in an email that its NICU has “a consistent vacancy rate of at least 10-12 beds.”
While LewisGale appealed the commissioner’s decision to Salem Circuit Court, the hospital decided to simultaneously file the new application with more recent data on its maternity business. According to the application, births at the Salem hospital increased 21 percent from 2010 to 2011.
Still, just 15 newborns had to be transferred to a NICU last year, and infant transfers represent about 2 percent of the total births at the hospital.
LewisGale, however, argues that because it doesn’t have a NICU many pregnant women decide to seek care with other providers prior to delivery. Women with known high-risk pregnancies are transferred to other providers when there is evidence that the unborn child may need NICU services.
In response to questions, LewisGale issued a statement reiterating its previous position that a NICU is needed to provide high-quality care to mothers and newborns.
“LewisGale Medical Center is fully and passionately committed to providing NICU services and is vigorously pursuing all possible avenues to secure approval of this much-needed service for the families and communities we serve,” the statement said in part.
In the latest application, LewisGale said adding the NICU would cost $3.6 million. The initial application said it would cost $3.4 million.
A public hearing on the latest application has been set for March 30 at 1 p.m. at Virginia Western Community College.