Kaweah Health leaders are moving forward with plans to replace the Visalia hospital’s aging Mineral King Wing with a nine-story, $500 million building.
The new wing would add 240 rooms with more than double the space of the current wing, which was built in 1969. The pie-shaped structure was considered cutting edge at the time but is cramped by modern standards and loathed by patients as a result, CEO Gary Herbst said.
The new tower would also include a pharmacy, cafeteria and basement. It beat out other proposals — including one that would’ve built two, shorter towers — because its projected cost is about $150 million cheaper than the alternatives.
“Aesthetically, I prefer (two towers), but it’s hard to argue with a $150 million savings … The public was loud and clear about preferring a single, cheaper tower,” said David Francis, Kaweah Delta Health Care District Board president. The board agreed to move forward with planning the new wing, but no construction has been approved.
“This is not a shovel-ready project,” Herbst said of the proposed expansion that would sit west of the Acequia Wing, near West Street.
The clock is ticking, however, because of a state law requiring California hospitals built before 1973 to meet modern earthquake safety standards.
The deadline set by the law is 2030 though that may change as hospitals across California reckon with the financial fallout of the coronavirus, which has gutted Kaweah Health’s reserves despite multiple rounds of stimulus money.
For the first time in recent history, more than half of the state’s hospitals are operating in the red, according to a study published this week by financial consulting firm Kaufman Hall.
California hospitals have collectively lost more than $20 billion since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the study found. The loss has been particularly acute in the San Joaquin Valley, with Tulare County reporting among the highest rates of Medi-Cal enrollment in the state, Herbst added.
“The findings of this study underscore the importance of ensuring legislators and policymakers understand that while COVID-19 cases are waning, the crushing effects on our health care delivery system will be with us for years if not decades,” The California Hospital Association, of which Kaweah is a member, said in a Tuesday tweet.
The financial strain on the hospital will limit its ability to finance the new construction internally. A tax measure to help pay for the tower’s construction is inevitable, Herbst and Francis said.
The hospital leaders said they hope to wait a few years, however, before asking the public for money in the form of a general obligation bond — giving both the hospital and homeowners time to recover from the pandemic’s economic consequences.
“I don’t think I can go to the community and ask them to support the entire $500 million because our community has also been hit really hard, and people are hurting right now,” Herbst said. “This isn’t the time to go out with a big tax measure, and so we’ve been very mindful of that.”
Francis and Herbst said they learned their lessons from Measure H — a failed 2016 bond measure that asked the public to help pay for the hospital’s earthquake-safe expansion. The proposal was met with criticism that the bond’s language was unclear and that the hospital didn’t include the public in its plans ahead of the vote.
The measure led to multiple board members being ousted during the same election year.
“We definitely learned a lesson from that (Measure H’s failure). This is a major do-over for us in many respects,” Herbst said, adding that the hospital has engaged public and patient stakeholder groups in the years since.
Any future bond amount is unclear at this time, he said. The hospital is working with the architects to lower building costs and determine what’s feasible. Herbst anticipates that the proposed bond might reach voters in November 2024.
That means the construction timeline is also unclear. Francis said that even if a bond were approved today, the wing likely wouldn’t be open and serving patients until 2030.
Herbst noted that the hospital has only issued two voter-approved bonds in its 60-year history, one at the hospital’s inception in the late 1960s and the second in 2003 to finance the construction of the Acequia Wing — home to the NICU, mother- baby unit and heart center.
Rising inflation and construction costs mean the hospital feels pressure to build the wing “as soon as we can,” Herbst said.
“A new facility is what’s best for our patients, staff, and community — and will serve us well for generations to come,” he said.
Joshua Yeager is a reporter with the Visalia Times-Delta and a Report for America corps member. He covers Tulare County news deserts with a focus on the environment and local governments.