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Fredericksburg City Council questions Mary Washington Healthcare expansion plans

by | Jun 4, 2024 | ALLFFP, Fredericksburg, Health & Wellness

Fredericksburg Mayor Kerry Devine chose her words carefully, prefacing her statements during a May 28 City Council work session by referring to Mary Washington Healthcare as a “valuable member of our community.” 

Then came the “but.” 

“But I have a concern about expansion at a time when I was looking at the latest Leapfrog survey that gave the hospital a D,” Devine said, referring to a recent survey from the nonprofit hospital watchdog group for Spring 2024. 

The exchange came during a conversation that, while ostensibly about zoning map amendments to the Mary Washington Hospital campus, frequently veered into discussions about childcare, hospital billing practices, and — at its most tense — the ‘D’ grade assigned by Leapfrog.  

“There are people electing to go elsewhere,” Devine told MWHC Senior Vice President Eric Fletcher, who attended the work session on behalf of the healthcare nonprofit. “I’ve gotten several calls from people who say, ‘I don’t want to go to a ‘D’ hospital.’ That’s a concern I have as we look toward expansion.” 

In response to Devine’s comment, Fletcher said that there are several metrics for assessing the quality of healthcare and that MWHC fares well in most of them. Mary Washington Hospital’s Leapfrog grade included “worse than average” marks in categories such as MRSA infection, death from serious complications and — as Devine noted — hand washing. 

“You’re not a top 50 heart hospital if you’re struggling with some of the basic things,” Fletcher countered. “We struggled during the pandemic to document everything that we normally would. That’s what’s driving a lot of that.” 

The work session offered a possible preview of the June 11 city council regular meeting, which will feature a public hearing on MWHC’s expansion plans. Those plans were already the subject of an unusually contentious hearing — continued over the course of two weeks — before the planning commission, which ultimately voted 6-1 to recommend the project. 

Earlier during the presentation, Councilor Jannan Holmes (at-large) inquired about facility fees that have been reported recently at outpatient clinics associated with MWHC. 

“How is that charged, will it definitely be charged, and does that just go to the hospital’s bottom line?” Holmes asked.  

In response, Fletcher cited data showing that hospital systems as a whole operated at a loss in 2022 and posted a less than one-percent positive margin the following year. He also offered a general explanation of Medicare reimbursement rates.

Councilor Jason Graham (Ward 1) broached the possibility that the proposed two-story medical clinic on the site of the current Kid’s Station could instead be built as a three-story building — with a childcare space on the first floor.  

“The entire campus at Mary Washington needs to be for medical use,” Fletcher said. “The biggest need our community has is, we have a lack of doctors, a lack of access to doctors. We’re going to turn this campus into not only the teaching aspect but also clinic space for use. We need the space on the campus for that use.” 

Councilor Will Mackintosh (at-large) used that comment to segue into a line of questioning about Snowden House being rezoned as residential under the zoning map amendment. Mackintosh posited that a zoning category of “hotel”  or “short-term rental” might be more accurate, given MWHC’s stated intentions for the space.

“The proposal that I love is to keep Snowden as a public space for you and your events to support the hospital,” Mackintosh said. “I agree that that’s the best and highest use of that kind of historic asset. I’m just concerned that if we agree to residential as part of this rezoning, then the house could potentially stop being used for that.”

City Zoning Administrator Kelly Machen responded that short-term rentals are typically limited to 30 days or less, which might not suit MWHC’s needs.

“If you’re looking to have a new doctor who’s moving to the area stay there for a couple of months until they find a house, then the hotel or short-term rental wouldn’t qualify,” Machen said.

Fletcher told the city council that KinderCare, which has operated Kid’s Station since 2021, has entered the “negotiation phase” for securing a replacement location. During public hearings before the planning commission, Fletcher and several members of the MWHC Board of Trustees pledged to hold off on closing Kid’s Station until a new center is operational. 

“We’re not looking to take any childcare option off the table,” he said. 

Pending approval from city council, Phase I of the MWHC campus expansion is slated to begin in August, and Fletcher said that KinderCare already has plans to incorporate the looming construction into its curriculum.  

“They’ll talk about building and learning,” he said. “The noise on our campus is pretty significant other than construction. The sirens these kids encounter every day are much louder than construction noise.” 

The Free Press discloses that Mary Washington Healthcare, an individual or organization central to this story, is a major donor to the Free Press. Donors do not exercise influence over newsroom operations.

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