OUR VIEW: Hospital carves PATH; will rest of us follow?

Crane christenings and slick acronyms aside, recent news coming from Gwinnett Medical Center merits this community's attention - and a thorough understanding.

In early June, hospital officials, employees and Gwinnett citizens gathered for a "crane christening" to mark the ceremonial start of construction of a new tower at GMC's Lawrenceville campus. (A crane christening is like a groundbreaking ceremony, but because the new tower will sit atop an existing building, there is no ground to break.)

At the event, hospital employees, medical staff and community leaders spoke about the need for health care expansion in Gwinnett, what it will mean to the community and how we're going to get there. They told their story through the acronym PATH (Planning, Advancing and Transforming Healthcare), the theme of the campaign to build and finance the project.

The new five-story patient tower will have 155 beds, add 175,000 square feet, cost about $90 million and be completed in 2009. The tower expansion is the most visible part of a much larger improvement plan that will see the hospital system spend $428 million over the next five years to upgrade technology, diagnostics equipment, surgical expansions and fund routine capital needs.

Fast-forward to the end of the month when hospital officials announced $22 million in cuts from the health system's annual operating budget. The trims came from every corner of hospital expenses, including the elimination of 72 jobs.

Spending capital on one hand, cutting expenses on the other. A simplistic view might suggest the two strategies at odds. In reality, the two will work hand in hand toward the goal of providing Gwinnett's burgeoning and diversifying population with the health care it needs.

When the Lawrenceville patient tower was constructed in 1984, Gwinnett's population was about 225,000 and there were a total of 426 hospital beds in the county. Twenty-plus years later, the population has more than tripled but the number of hospital beds has only grown to 611. Meanwhile Cobb County with 100,000 fewer residents has 800 more hospital beds.

Dr. Miles Mason, president of the Gwinnett Hospital System medical staff points out that the current facilities are busting at the seams with more than 100 percent occupancy in the past 18 months.

The need for expansion is clear. Now, the question officials face is how to pay for it.

Hospital leaders have three ways of raising the capital for such a product.

' They can earn capital via operating profits of the hospital system.

' They can borrow it through bonds and other financial tools.

' They can raise it through donations from the community they serve.

The campaign will employ all three, but the most efficient method will be the philanthropic investment of this community.

With borrowing comes the burden of interest.

Hospital profits will be applied, but won't come quick enough, although the $22 million in operating expense cuts will hurry that along.

Community contributions, however, go straight to the bottom line and will be critical to the campaign's success.

To that end, The Gwinnett Health System Foundation will launch a multi-million dollar capital campaign in the fall to support Project PATH. Those wishing for more information on how to contribute can call the foundation at 678-312-4634.

Gwinnett Health System has big plans. We realized some of those plans last fall when the system opened the 175,000-square-foot, high-tech Gwinnett Medical Center-Duluth.

But there's more to be done, and GHS has a plan in place to take us there. They will be asking the community's help along the way. For the health of this community now and in the future, it will be our duty to answer the call.

Gwinnett's amenities are many. Good schools, a great business environment, an award-winning park system, a flourishing arts community all are reasons that thousands more move here each year. Superior health care, too, plays an integral role in this community's quality of life.

The unsigned editorials reflect the opinion of the Gwinnett Daily Post. Columns, letters to the editor and cartoons reflect the opinions of the individuals who penned them. It is the policy of the Gwinnett Daily Post to correct all errors of fact. Corrections usually run on Page 4A.