News & Events

Hospital wins state OK to add 60 beds

Overtaxed facility plans $52m 2-floor expansion

By Johanna Seltz, Globe Correspondent  |  December 27, 2009

WEYMOUTH – The state has approved plans by South Shore Hospital to add two stories and 60 beds in a $52 million project that comes on the heels of construction of its $89 million cancer treatment center and new parking garage.

While the recession has stalled many projects around the state – including the massive SouthField multiuse development at the nearby former South Weymouth Naval Air Station – South Shore Hospital is forging ahead and hopes to break ground in the spring. The project was the only major hospital expansion approved by the state this fiscal year.

“They need the space,’’ said Joan Gorga, director of the program that reviews construction proposals for the state Department of Public Health. “They are experiencing a very high occupancy rate – over 95 percent. People get sick regardless of the economy.’’

In a perverse way, the bad economy helped encourage hospital officials to move ahead, Gorga said. “They said they feel this is an excellent time to expand because the contractors are looking for work, so they are getting an excellent price,’’ she said.

In justifying its plans to the state, hospital officials said increasing numbers of patients are taxing the 385-bed hospital’s capacity and leading to longer waiting times in the emergency room.

Five years ago, the state reviewed complaints about delays at South Shore Hospital’s emergency room and, while expressing concern, found that the issue was a statewide crisis in insufficient emergency room space and that South Shore Hospital had addressed its “process’’ problems.

Since then, the number of people using South Shore Hospital’s emergency room annually has grown by 6 percent – to nearly 80,000. The number of in-patients also went up and is expected to keep growing as the surrounding population both increases and ages, the hospital reported.

While located in Weymouth, the hospital’s patients come from Braintree, Hingham, Rockland, Scituate, Marshfield, Norwell, Hull, Pembroke, Hanover, Abington, and nine other communities to a lesser extent.

“We’re full all the time,’’ said hospital spokeswoman Sarah Darcy. “We’re not complaining in any way – people are choosing us for their care, which is great. We just need to expand.’’

Indeed, South Shore Hospital’s history is all about expansion. It opened in 1922 as Weymouth Hospital with 20 beds in the H.B. Reed estate, a three-story Civil War-era brick house on 3 1/2 acres at the corner of Main and Columbian streets in South Weymouth. The first addition – of 14 private rooms – came a year later; the former stable was converted to nurses’ housing the year after that.

The hospital continued to grow through the Depression and used money from the Public Works Administration to finance another addition. In 1945, the facility was renamed South Shore Hospital, and had 117 beds, including 40 bassinets.

The original hospital building was torn down in 1967; a structure three times its size, the Emerson Building, opened in 1990. More expansion followed, most recently with a cancer care center.

Plans also include leasing space for a “bone and muscle center’’ as the anchor tenant in a building proposed by a private developer for the South Shore Industrial Park in Hingham.

Joe Kirkpatrick, vice president of health care finance for the Massachusetts Hospital Association, said South Shore Hospital’s continuous capital investment is unusual – although he anticipates more activity by other hospitals later this year or next if the economy rebounds.

The eight years prior to 2004 constituted a long, dry spell, and hospitals put off a lot of work, Kirkpatrick said.

That was followed by a three-year boom when hospitals made up for lost time and invested a lot of money in improvements, he said. But then the recession hit and most spending screeched to a halt, he said.

“I think there will be some give in 2010, maybe 2011, depending on what happens with the economy,’’ Fitzpatrick said. “But aside from [South Shore Hospital’s project], I haven’t seen it yet.’’

Gorga said while the South Shore Hospital proposal is the only large acute-care project approved this fiscal year, there are several pending – including more than $200 million in work at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. Good Samaritan Medical Center in Brockton received initial approval last fiscal year for a new $25 million emergency room and is working to secure financing, a spokesman said.

South Shore Hospital received local zoning approval last month and initial state approval in late December for its plan to add two floors (the fifth and sixth) – each with 25 private rooms – to the main building. A two-story addition on the side of the building would accommodate another 10 rooms. The state has 90 days to review the plans, Darcy said.

“If all goes well, and I stress ‘if,’ that puts us around springtime’’ for groundbreaking, she said. “With any construction project, I’m very hesitant to say a specific month, but typically it’s a 12-to-18-month construction project.’’

Johanna Seltz can be reached at