University of New Mexico's plan to build a new hospital reached a significant milestone Tuesday when UNM's governing board voted to hire an architect to start advanced design work.
The design would focus on just the first phase, which includes 120 beds, six operating rooms and clinical offices. But the project is just the start of what UNM Health Sciences Center leaders see as the eventual replacement of all UNMH's adult-care units in its existing 1950s building – a structure that they argue is inadequate in both size and efficiency measures.
The Board of Regents' unanimous approval to proceed with the architectural planning – met with a round of applause from UNM's medical school faculty and other supporters at the meeting – marks a clear step forward for a yearslong UNMH expansion effort that has already stalled once.
“I think this is a very important day for our university, our community and our state,” UNMH CEO Steve McKernan told the Journal in an interview after Tuesday's vote. “It will allow us to continue to deliver and enhance high-quality care for a lot of patients.”
UNM had actually been further along in a 2012 bid to build a new 96-bed facility, needing only a final OK from the Gov. Susana Martinez-led State Board of Finance to begin construction. But the board never held a vote, thus preventing the hospital from moving forward.
Officials presented a new proposal earlier this year that ultimately envisions a 408-bed hospital (including 48 adult psychiatric beds) on UNM-owned land north of Lomas, between University and the arroyo. HSC Chancellor Dr. Paul Roth told regents it made more sense from a financial perspective to construct it in phases, starting with the 120-bed phase. That phase will cost an estimated $230 million to $250 million, and UNM has saved more than $200 million for such a project.
Roth said the proposal will also undergo a detailed financial analysis to ensure its viability in what was described as a parallel track to the architectural design.
Roth told the Journal in an interview that Tuesday's vote felt monumental.
“We have been planning and looking forward to positive movement on the hospital project, and it's difficult to explain to you in just a few words what this really means to the medical staff of UNM Hospital, who are our faculty in the medical school, and the significance of this to our hospital staff, who literally almost every hour of every day find themselves … not being able to provide critical and significant health care for people that they know is required from our facilities,” he said.
He and others contend that UNMH is not big enough to meet statewide demand for its Level 1 trauma and other subspecialty services and also that the existing facility does not adequately accommodate modern medical technology or have rooms big enough to serve training needs.
Roth said UNM in the past year had to turn down 1,000 patient transfers from hospitals around the state.
Several medical faculty members and administrators spoke in support of the hospital during the meeting.
“I think the need for capacity is felt every day by our faculty and patients,” said Dr. Mark Unruh, chair of the internal medicine department, adding he sometimes feels “despair” for patients who have difficulty getting admitted to the hospital due to space limitations.
Regents President Rob Doughty asked Unruh if HSC administrators had given Unruh and his fellow department chairs an adequate voice in planning.
“I can tell you the process has been very inclusive; the leadership has engaged the faculty and chairs all along the way, and I would expect that to continue,” Unruh said.
Regent Tom Clifford expressed concern that the 120-bed facility would not include an emergency room, citing the chronic overcrowding in UNMH's existing ER. Roth and McKernan explained that the overcrowding usually reflects an inability to find beds around the hospital for ER patients who have been stabilized and received admission orders.
“By increasing in-patient beds through this facility, we will not have to use up sometimes half of the entire emergency department for patients waiting for beds,” Roth said.
McKernan said a request for proposals for an architect should be issued in the next month. The planning process will take an estimated 15 to 18 months. UNM would still need a series of approvals – including from the regents, the state Higher Education Department and the State Board of Finance – before it could start construction. Given the timeline, UNM is likely to face a different Board of Finance than the one where its 2012 proposal died, since New Mexico will in 2018 elect a new governor.
If the project proceeds according to the current timeline, the new facility should open by mid-2022.