Hospitals thriving, public health in need of funding

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Gwinnett's major hospitals appear well on their way toward accommodating a million residents -- but what about the public health system?

Sharp increases in population -- at least in theory, and thus far in Gwinnett's reality -- can produce a spike in the number of residents needing a cheaper source of health care. Enter "public health" and the Gwinnett, Newton and Rockdale County Health Departments, formerly the East Metro Health District.

In 2005, public health officials predicted Gwinnett would hit 1 million by 2017, and that the population would necessitate "at least six large public health clinics." GNR Health had three small ones (in Norcross, Lawrenceville and Buford) in Gwinnett back then.

Seven years and about 130,000 new residents later, it still does.

"A large challenge for the health department is funding," GNR Health spokeswoman Karen Shields said in an email she called "a collaborative effort" by several officials. "While Gwinnett County has one of the largest populations in the state, funding allocations have not kept up with the population growth."

Even with the same facilities, and largely the same funding, the county health department has seen an increase in need. Between 2010 and 2011, Shields said, the department -- which offers things like immunizations, screenings for children and maternal and child health services -- saw 22 percent more "client encounters."

The department is also responsible for restaurant that, which have seen a sharp rise with the growth in population.

Shields pointed to at least one silver lining for the future, crediting Sen. Renee Unterman and Rep. Donna Sheldo.

"The state allocation formula for General Grant-in-Aid to local health departments in Georgia was recently revised and will provide financial relief to the Gwinnett County Health Department," she said, "as it is implemented over the next seven years."

As for Gwinnett's private health system, projections from 2005 held that Gwinnett's major hospitals would have about 1,000 beds by the time the county hit 1 million in population. They've already nearly reached that mark.

Gwinnett Medical Center has added a patient tower at its Lawrenceville campus since then, and Eastside Medical (dropping its former "Emory" moniker in 2011) has expanded its emergency department and added a new medical office building.

By the time construction on a tower at Eastside -- scheduled to be completed by the end of the year -- is finished, the GMC system and Eastside will combine for approximately 911 beds.

"Our patients deserve new, state-of-the-art private rooms, and we're going to have that very soon," Eastside COO Dustin Greene said in December.

Just last month, GMC opened its brand new Strickland Heart Center, boosting Gwinnett's health care reputation by eliminating its title as the United States' largest county without open heart surgery.

Four open heart surgeries in a span of 36 hours last month marked a first in Gwinnett, and the end of a long battle to bring the offering here after it was formally protested by several Atlanta-area hospitals.

"This exciting achievement marks the pinnacle in an eventful journey related to GMC's Strickland Heart Center," GMC CEO Phil Wolfe said at the time.

This story is part of the 2012 annual Progress edition, "Moving Gwinnett Toward One Million." To see the complete online edition, click HERE.