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FEMA approves South Nassau plan

Approval paves way for improved facilities in O’side and Long Beach

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Four years after Hurricane Sandy forced the closure of Long Beach Medical Center, the Federal Emergency Management Agency approved a plan last month that would allow South Nassau Communities Hospital to build an emergency medical facility in Long Beach and expand its Oceanside campus.

The plan would make it possible for South Nassau to use $154 million in federal disaster relief funds originally earmarked for LBMC after the storm. South Nassau plans to build a $40 million medical pavilion and 24-hour emergency department on the former LBMC campus, which South Nassau acquired in 2014 for $11.8 million in a bankruptcy sale.

Though the three-story, 50,000-square-foot facility would not operate as the full-service hospital many residents and elected officials have called for, South Nassau officials say it would have a permanent emergency department and suites for a range of other services such as family medicine, behavioral health, dialysis, geriatric care and diagnostic imaging, which officials say were added after a number of community input meetings.

The total cost of the project is $171 million, with FEMA allocating 90 percent of the funds and South Nassau covering 10 percent. Under alternative-use legislation introduced by Sen. Charles Schumer after Sandy and approved by Congress in 2014, the hospital could also use the funding to bolster services and infrastructure at its Oceanside campus.

South Nassau officials said that FEMA’s approval paves the way for the design phase of the project, and will kick off a lengthy regulatory and environmental review process that is expected to take at least 18 months before any work begins. A number of public-input meetings will be held during that time, officials said. The work in both Long Beach and Oceanside is expected to be completed by 2020.

“This is an investment that will benefit Long Beach, Oceanside and the entire South Shore,” said Richard Murphy, South Nassau’s president and chief executive officer. “The southwest addition to the hospital and the medical arts pavilion in Long Beach will go a long way toward addressing the South Shore’s future medical needs while restoring services that were lost as a result of Sandy and fortifying against another storm.”

The approval comes amid a lawsuit that was filed against FEMA in July by members of the Beach to Bay Central Council of Civic Associations, which has been advocating for the rebuilding of a local hospital. The suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Central Islip, claims that the federal funding was meant to restore medical services in Long Beach, and that FEMA violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights under the 14th Amendment by allowing the money to be spent in Oceanside and disregarding community input. South Nassau was not named in the suit.

Beach to Bay is also seeking an injunction to halt the distribution of the funds, and an advisory opinion from the court to determine whether the money is being used appropriately.

“It’s in exceptionally bad form if FEMA agreed to the alternative-use plan while litigation was pending,” said Francis McQuade, an attorney for Beach to Bay, adding that the group is still waiting for a copy of the plan after it submitted a Freedom of Information Law request to FEMA. “… A judge could render the lawsuit moot because [the alternative-use plan has] already been decided, but of course we would make a big fuss about that.”

A spokeswoman for FEMA was not available for comment.

Beach to Bay and others maintain that the proposed medical pavilion would be inadequate to meet the needs of a “geographically isolated” community, and could not accept ambulances transporting stroke victims and other patients suffering from certain time-critical medical conditions.

South Nassau officials maintain that a temporary emergency department in Long Beach, which opened last year, is capable of stabilizing and treating patients, and those who require hospital admission or advanced treatment are transferred by ambulance to South Nassau or another hospital. During its first year of operation, the facility treated nearly 10,000 patients, 88 percent of whom were treated and released without having to leave the barrier island.

“They’re seeing all kinds of patients there,” said Joe Calderone, South Nassau’s senior vice president of corporate communications and development. “They’re seeing the heart attack patients, the stroke patients — they are treating every imaginable emergency at the Long Beach emergency department.”

South Nassau maintains that a full-service hospital would lose money, and that the state Department of Health is unlikely to approve such a facility, given that regional hospitals with local ambulatory hubs are the trend in health care.

Officials also say that the Oceanside hospital is in dire need of expansion. Its emergency department is designed to handle 35,000 visits per year, but actually takes in around 67,000. When completed, the four-story, 58,000-square-foot southwest addition will feature a new critical-care unit with up to 24 new beds, an expanded emergency services department and new operating rooms.

“This is a once-in-a-generation chance to improve medical services for the entire South Shore of Nassau County,” said Joseph Fennessy, chairman of South Nassau’s board of directors. “South Nassau has become a regional medical center, and this is another major step forward for the hospital and for the communities we serve.”

A number of elected officials, including U.S. Rep. Kathleen Rice and Nassau County Legislator Denise Ford, have voiced their support for the project, though some have called on South Nassau to build a medical facility in Long Beach that is more “robust.”

“Ensuring that barrier island residents have access to adequate medical services has been a top priority,” State Sen. Todd Kaminsky, a Democrat who is running for re-election, said in a statement. “These facilities will go a long way to restoring services we lost as a result of Sandy, and hopefully a robust medical center that will attract world class doctors to the area. But there is much more work to be done. The sooner we can get shovels into the ground, the better.”