At a voter forum Thursday night, Drew Memorial Hospital surgeons Drs. Michelle Pittman and John Jerius along with the hospital’s chief executive officer Scott Barrilleaux discussed a proposed $31 million hospital expansion and upcoming sales tax election. The hospital is asking voters to approve a quarter-cent sales tax to help fund the project.

Dr. Michelle Pittman, Dr. John Jerius and Drew Memorial Hospital CEO Scott Barrilleaux

Dr. Michelle Pittman, Dr. John Jerius, and Drew Memorial Hospital CEO Scott Barrilleaux

The 57,000 square-foot expansion, which would be constructed on the southeast corner of the hospital, would house a new surgery center, outpatient clinic, birthing center (labor, delivery and recovery) and nursery, and a power plant to power the new facility. Included in the $31 million price tag is equipment, furnishings and the cost to remodel the existing labor and delivery unit into a laboratory. The entire project would be completed in about 18 months, according to Barrilleaux.

The hospital already has $10 million of the $31 million set aside for the expansion: $6 million in hospital cash and $4 million in previously collected ad valorem tax proceeds. The hospital would also get an $11.2 million low-interest loan from the United States Department of Agriculture, leaving a balance of about $9.7 million. To generate that $9.7 million, the hospital is asking voters to approve a quarter-cent sales tax which would remain in effect until bonds are paid off, about 21 years.

The sales tax election is set for December 8 with early voting beginning on December 1.

If the measure passes, the quarter-cent sales tax will replace half of an expiring half-cent countywide sales tax voters approved in 2010 to build a new library. An existing .4-mill ad valorem tax which generates $80,000 a year for the hospital would discontinue.

The hospital expansion, according to hospital officials and physicians, is needed to meet the community’s health care needs and position the hospital as a regional health care provider.

When Drew Memorial Hospital was built 40 years ago — replacing the former hospital on Main Street — the operating room was designed primarily for inpatient surgeries. Now, about 90 percent of all surgeries performed at the hospital are done on outpatient basis with most patients returning home the same day. “Unfortunately, what we’ve seen is we really don’t have the facilities to take care of that,” Dr. Jerius said.

So, Drs. Jerius and Pittman, the operating room team, and other physicians worked with an architect to create an efficient and flexible plan to meet the hospital’s current and future surgical needs, according to Jerius. The plan calls for three operating rooms with the capacity to add a fourth, two rooms for cesarean sections, an expanded recovery area, and an outpatient surgery area.

Dr. Pittman said the expansion would allow the hospital to better accommodate the services it is currently providing and bring in new surgical services on a full-time basis so that patients don’t have to travel so far.

“In this community you have some really talented primary care physicians,” she said. “You have so many things in place that could actually make this a hub. People don’t really need to go all the way to Little Rock and they don’t need to go to Pine Bluff to get good care. It can happen right here…. Why not make this a center for really good care and provide it to all of Southeast Arkansas?”

The hospital is currently performing 180 to 190 surgeries per month, up from 110 to 120 this time last year. It is also on track to deliver 400 babies this year, up from about 300 last year.

“I think there is a great opportunity for Monticello to be a regional health care provider,” Barrilleaux said, explaining that the hospital has been in discussions with several area hospitals about moving some of their services, such as obstetrics or surgical services, to Monticello.

The presentation appeared to be well received by those who attended the Thursday night forum.

“I think when most voters go to the polls and they see a tax on (the ballot), their first inclination is to vote ‘no’,” said Monticello businessman Tommy Newman. “… I think it’s going to be a mistake for most voters in this county to not know what I’ve been shown tonight, because it changed my mind…. I’m going to vote for it and I hope everybody will look at it in that sense.”