Friday February 8, 2013

NEAL P. GOSWAMI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- Southwestern Vermont Health Care is asking the town to of Bennington to amend its deed of trust to allow for private development on hospital property as it considers a possible expansion.

SVHC officials are looking to modernize the Southwestern Vermont Medical Center campus as health care reforms approach at the state and federal level. Initial estimates of the modernization project suggest it will cost more than $80 million, according to a memo from SVHC Director of Planning James Trimarchi to town officials.

The hospital has already delayed moving forward with the project since a master facility plan was completed in 2011. That plan calls for upgrading the medical office complex and the emergency department and addressing central utility issues.

Creating the capital for such an expansion, which is conceptual at this point, would be difficult for the health corporation while trying to maintain cash-flow for operations, according to the memo. To lower costs, SVHC hopes to work with an outside developer to build the structure. The hospital could then enter into a purchase or lease agreement for the building.

If the hospital’s proposed language is not approved it "could hinder SVHC’s efforts to prepare for health care reform by significantly limiting the health system’s options for financing and expanding the services it provides to the community," the memo reads.

The hospital has already taken some steps to modernize, including an affiliation with Dartmouth-Hitchcock in New Hampshire. SVHC officials are looking to implement electronic medical records and expand the Vermont Blueprint for Health, in addition to modernizing facilities.

There are limitations with the wording in the hospital’s land deed, however, that will make achieving those goals difficult, according to Trimarchi’s memo.

Most of the land used by Southwestern Vermont Medical Center was entrusted to the town by Henry W. Putnam about 100 years ago. Among the terms of the deeds is a stipulation that the land must be used for health care purposes.

Hospital officials say they do not intend to change how the land is used. But, they said, language in the deeds is outdated and not suited for allowing the health system to deliver health care effectively in the 21st century. Changing the language would allow the hospital to seek new ways to develop the land in an affordable way and better deliver care, according to the memo.

Hospital officials are set to appear before the Select Board on Monday to outline proposed changes to the language. The changes would allow the health corporation to seek outside groups to finance or develop the property.

The proposed language also gives the town, through the Select Board, final say over any future development or changes to the property, according to a question and answer sheet from the hospital to town officials.

Additionally, SVHC’s proposed language would allow for easier access to bonds and allow for the sale or lease of land. Trimarchi maintains that the town will not lose any of its authority over the land.

"The select board will retain authority to review and approve all projects on the Bennington campus and play a more active role in helping to shape the health system to best meet the needs of the community," Trimarchi’s memo reads.

The town’s attorney, Robert E. Woolmington, has been working with SVHC for about a year on appropriate changes to the deeds. He appears to back the proposed changes in a letter to Town Manager Stuart A. Hurd and the Select Board.

"In summary, the stipulation takes a simple trust arrangement at the time of World War I and adapts it to the 21st century realities of health care while preserving the intention of the donor and the prerogatives of the Town," he wrote.

SVHC spokesman Kevin Robinson said officials would not comment on the matter until after Monday’s Select Board meeting.

"We will be happy to answer any questions about our request to modify the deed of trust after Monday’s public presentation to the Bennington Select Board. Out of respect for the Select Board and the public process, we feel that it is inappropriate to comment until that time," Robinson said.

Contact Neal Goswami at ngoswami@benningtonbanner.com or @nealgoswami on Twitter.