It’s a hard time to be a rural hospital, but last week Northern Light Health sent a strong message about its commitment to Hancock County: Blue Hill Hospital is here to stay. Not only that, but it is getting an extreme makeover. Officials plan to break ground on a new, smaller building next year. The hospital also will celebrate a century of service to the community in 2022.
The hospital first opened in a brick house at the head of Blue Hill Bay. Built in 1831 by Thomas Coggin, the home was leased and then purchased by Caroline Richards for use as the hospital in the early 1920s. It was rebuilt after burning in 1929. So many years later, the present hospital building is showing its age. Starting fresh is more cost effective than renovating, says CEO John Ronan, but services are expected to continue without interruption in existing facilities as the new space is built. While he declined to estimate a price tag for the project, it is safe to assume it will be substantial.
The plan is for fewer patient rooms, but they will be technologically up to date, afford individuals privacy at a difficult time and the number should be sufficient for the hospital’s current needs, according to Ronan. With the evolving healthcare landscape, hospitals must stay nimble to remain relevant — or simply to stay afloat. Some changes have been difficult, including when the hospital discontinued surgical services and closed its obstetrics department.
Ever since the hospital merged with Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems (now Northern Light Health), and before, there have been worries about the future. The University of North Carolina’s Rural Health Research Program has cataloged 136 rural hospital closures across the country since 2010, three of them in Maine. Northern Light operates two other hospitals nearby, and some in the community have wondered just how much merging might be done in the future. Maine Coast in Ellsworth is roughly 15 miles away and the flagship Eastern Maine Medical Center is in Bangor. An extra 25 minutes to an hour may not seem far but tell that to someone having an emergency in Stonington. Luckily for Blue Hill Hospital, it has strong community support and a history of operating in the black.
In announcing construction plans, hospital officials said they were “keeping our promise” and planning for the next century of care. That’s good news for employees, patients and the community at large.