Federal union raises concerns with new Beaumont hospital design

Special Report: Will new Fort Bliss hospital meet the needs of the post?

EL PASO, Texas - The local federal employees union leader is concerned the new half a billion dollar hospital that will replace William Beaumont Army Medical Center has been designed in a way that won't meet the needs of the Fort Bliss community, while the hospital commander insists the new hospital will meet population growth.

The hospital, slated to open in 2017, has already been designed and the contractor will soon break ground.

Paul Ferris, president of the local chapter of the American Federation of Federal Employees, has filed a federal complaint, saying the union was not included in the design process.

He said they were not shown the plans until earlier this year.

"In theory, they did what we call in the military - check the box," Ferris said. "They talked to a few folks but as a member of the union, we were never contacted, we were never included, and we filed charges that we were never included as we should be because this is a change in working conditions."

Col. Michael S. Heimall said the Health Facilities Planning Agency, who works for Army Surgeon General, analyzed population data and work load for Beaumont before working with the Army Corps of Engineers, which hired a designer to draft the plans.

Michael Vonasek, the Construction Manager for the Army Corps of Engineers Medical Construction Office is leading the construction of the new hospital. He said the construction team took input from the hospital staff throughout the process.

"The design documents are distributed by the Chain of Command and they share them with William Beaumont Army Medical Center and then comments are gathered by various parties in the design key and our designer evaluates if there is merit to this design question, if not, here's why," Vonasek said.

Ferris, and at least one doctor who didn't want to go on camera, are concerned with some of the design aspects of the hospital, including the decrease in surgical beds and the placement of the operating rooms and intensive care units.

The new hospital, according to Col. Heimall, will have fewer surgical beds and medical ward beds - from the existing 35 to 28. "If you look at how those beds are filled on any given day, they're generally - the census is well below 25 and so I think we're in pretty good shape," said Col. Heimall. He added the overall capacity of the new hospital will remain about the same and pointed out there will be two more operating rooms and more intensive care beds.

Col. Heimall points to the fact more Army doctors are performing robotic surgeries on Army patients in private El Paso hospitals.

"The way American medicine is going is to reduce reliance on in-patient beds," Col. Heimall said.

When asked about the move to provide some army care in private hospitals, Ferris said: "Soldiers want to be taken care of by soldiers. It's not about going downtown. You continue to do that, you won't need a federal hospital."

The commander said hospital planners analyzed population growth based on known stationing changes, projected active duty population, retiree growth and the hospital's workload history.

"The biggest concern is: is the building adequate to take care of the population? That, I am absolutely convinced of. To add more beds to the building would have been a challenge," said Heimall.

Ferris contends army influx can change with political decisions and is concerned the new hospital will have to expand at some point.

"If you look at the website for Fort Bliss, you see how we're growing and how we're increasing the amount of people that are coming here if that is true, we need better systems to take care of the family members of the federal employees, of the veterans, of the active duty," Ferris said.

The Army said the new hospital will be state of the art with "new evidence based practices." For example, the operating rooms and the intensive care units - traditionally next to each other, will be on separate floors.

Ferris said doctors who have expressed alarm over the change have been shut out of the design process.

Heimall said new research indicates an increase in infections when the operating rooms and intensive care units are next to each other.

"Are we going to build something based on the way we've always done it or are we going to build something on an individual's personal preference or are we actually going to build something based on evidence and research that shows why we're doing it, that shows we have better outcomes for our patients along the way," Heimall said.

Ferris filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the data that the Army said proves infections increase when the ORs and ICUs are parallel. According to a response Ferris forwarded to ABC-7, the Army responded to him, saying there were no responsive documents addressing his request.

ABC-7, weeks ago, also requested the studies that the Army said it based its decision to put the OR and the ICU on different floors. Initially, Beaumont Public Information Officer Clarence Davis said hospital officials were gathering the information from Army officials but they never sent ABC-7 the documents.

Ferris said Beaumont's command says the hospital design also considered veteran populations but he points to literature passed out by the command that states veteran populations were not considered. Heimall insisted the hospital design also included veterans.

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