PORTLAND – Despite experiencing financial challenges, the largest hospital in the state is about to get bigger.
The Planning Board on Tuesday unanimously approved a $40 million expansion of Maine Medical Center’s Bramhall Street campus. The 40,000-square-foot addition will be built on top of the Lower Bean Building, near the emergency room.
The project will add four operating rooms and associated patient prep and recovery areas. It will also allow the hospital to expand its existing operating rooms from an average of 400 square feet to 650 square feet.
Mark Harris, the hospital’s vice president of planning and marketing, said its operating rooms currently run at 90 percent capacity, while the national average is in the “mid 80s.”
“What this does is decompress that (operating room) activity and modernize the facility,” Harris said.
Harris said larger operating rooms will allow more space for advanced cardiac procedures — some of which require surgical teams of 15 to 18 people.
The project comes amid financial troubles at Maine Medical Center.
The hospital instituted a hiring freeze last spring after suffering a $13.4 million operating loss for the first half of its fiscal year ending March 31.
Last month, the hospital offered voluntary early-retirement buyouts to about 400 employees, citing “financial challenges.”
In a letter to employees, hospital President and Chief Executive Officer Richard Peterson said Maine Medical was experiencing financial challenges, including $15 million in “bad debt” and free care. He also said the $67 million Mainecare reimbursement approved by the Legislature was “not a windfall,” but rather payment for services already rendered.
Peterson also addressed the expansion, saying it was needed to support higher patient volumes and advanced procedures. Existing operating rooms are getting old and physicians are cramped, the letter says.
In 2011 — the most recent Internal Revenue Service figures available — six of the 10 Maine hospital executives and physicians who made $1 million or more per year worked for Maine Medical Center in Portland or its parent company, MaineHealth.
William Caron Jr., president of MaineHealth, was paid $1,128,000 in 2011, while Peterson was paid nearly $1.04 million.
Despite the voluntary early-retirement buyouts, Harris said, the expansion will require an additional 49 people to staff the operating rooms.
“We are always very mindful of our capacity needs and our needs for modernization,” Harris said.
In 2011, Maine Medical Center had slightly above the national average for occupancy rates of acute care beds, but below the rates of Mercy Hospital in Portland and Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.
The national occupancy rate is 66 percent. Maine Medical Center’s occupancy rate for its 637 acute-care beds was 69.4 percent. Mercy Hospital in Portland had an occupancy rate of 85.6 percent for its 230 acute-care beds, and Eastern Maine Medical Center’s rate was 81 percent for its 411 acute-care beds.
Maine Med’s three-story addition will add 40 feet to the height of the Lower Bean Building, for a total height of 69 feet.
It will have a glass facade, but only 20 percent of the glass area would allow light into the building, City Planner Jean Fraser said. Glare will be minimized because of the site’s sheltered location, an architect said. The remaining portions of the building will be designed to disperse sunlight, rather than reflect it to the surrounding area.
Planning Board members applauded the contemporary design.
“I’m glad to see a building that is not just another brick building,” said Chairwoman Carol Morrissette.
The hospital will install racks for 36 bicycles and devote one parking space for a car-sharing program to help reduce traffic associated with the expansion.
The board attached a few conditions to the approval. The hospital must monitor car-accident data on Congress Street from Weymouth Street to Ellsworth Street.
If crash rates increase, the city may remove on-street parking along that stretch, Fraser said.
The hospital must also pay for signal upgrades at Congress and Valley streets.
Harris said the state must still sign off on a certificate of need for the project. Construction could start this winter and be finished by spring 2015, he said.
Randy Billings can be contacted at 791-6346 or at: