WellStar plans bold, high-priced expansion

WellStar Health System plans to spend $800 million over the next decade in expansion and improvements, including a new $14 million outpatient campus in Cobb County and a $100 million hospital in Paulding County.

The health system's plans buck a trend among hospitals to scale back on spending and building projects.

WellStar officials on Tuesday acknowledged some challenges ahead. The new hospital requires state approval, the outpatient campus is the subject of a lawsuit over the property's rezoning, and the economy could force the delay or scaling back of some elements.

Still, WellStar CEO Gregory Simone said the hospital is moving ahead, having saved money through greater efficiency and renegotiating contracts.

"Our work force has become more productive, and that production translates into cost savings," he said.

Simone added, "Recessions go away, but the needs of the community don't go away."

WellStar operates five hospitals and serves Cobb, Douglas, Cherokee, Paulding and Bartow counties. The health system employs 11,000 people.

The outpatient campus in Acworth will include physician offices and a diagnostic and imaging center.

The new hospital in Hiram will replace the health system's 50-year-old facility in Dallas. WellStar officials hope to receive state approval for the new building early next year and open it in 2013.

The health system also plans a $120 million upgrade of its information technology systems, which officials said will better track patients' medical histories and cut down on errors.

WellStar also plans a $40 million health care park at a location to be determined, officials said. It also plans on expanding several service lines, including oncology, orthopedics, cardiology, and women and babies.

The recession has forced 60 percent of Georgia's hospitals to cut staff or consider such a move, and more than one-third to reduce services or contemplate such a move, according to a survey of 63 hospitals and health systems by the Georgia Hospital Association.

Economic uncertainty led Emory to suspend a $1.5 billion medical expansion project, and to announce $30 million in cost cuts. Piedmont Healthcare in December placed on hold a $194 million project to build a new hospital in Newnan.