Bon Secours opens new East End medical facility

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 1/12/2023, 6 p.m.
A battered Bon Secours Mercy Health is promising increased investments in health care in Richmond’s East End in pushing back …
Joey Trapani, center, COO of Bon Secours Community Hospital, conducts the official ribbon-cutting with Cynthia Newbille, City Council representative for the 7th District in Richmond’s East End. They are joined by others from the community, elected officials and surrounding health care systems employees. Photo by Regina H. Boone

A battered Bon Secours Mercy Health is promising increased investments in health care in Richmond’s East End in pushing back against critics claiming the giant health care system has diverted savings on expensive drugs away from the community to wealthier areas.

Michael Lutes, president of Bon Secours Richmond, on Tuesday dismissed the criticism as inaccurate and misplaced as he outlined plans to expand services under the banner of “Community Today, Community Tomorrow: Pathway to Wellness in the East End.”

During the next three years, Mr. Lutes said Bon Secours plans to build an urgent care center to treat people outside the emergency room as part of the plan that he said grew out of 60 community meetings, a community survey and input from nonprofit partners and physicians.

While he would not project a price tag, Mr. Lutes said the plan also calls for expanding or adding services in 12 specialty areas ranging from heart disease to stomach disorders at Bon Secours’ main outpost in the area, Richmond Community Hospital, and finally installing a new MRI imaging system at the hospital to replace one that is constantly in need of repair.

The promise of bolstered health care highlighted a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the latest addition to the hospital campus, a $16.5 million, two-story office building where 147 nurses, social workers, physicians and other employees started to work Wednesday.

The ceremony came just two days before a planned community session the Richmond Coalition of Health Equity, an arm of Richmond Together, was to hold at 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 12, to continue pressing Bon Secours to invest even more in health care in the East End.

The coalition was created in the wake of a New York Times exposé last year that claimed that Bon Secours was taking tens of millions in savings on drug prices provided through a federal program called 340B and collected through Richmond Community and spending them on operations in the suburban neighborhoods. Bon Secours has denied the claim and cited exaggerations and misstatements in the article.

“It’s a great day,” 7th District City Councilwoman Cynthia I. Newbille enthused to the audience of 120 people as she took part in ceremonially opening the new building.

Paying homage to the “21 African-American physicians without whom Richmond Community would not be here,” Ms. Newbille also noted that the hospital probably would not be in the community had Bon Secours not purchased it in 1995.

“I thank you for keeping your word and delivering on your commitment to develop a comprehensive wellness plan” based on community stakeholders, she said, before adding, “You said you would do that and we look forward to continuing to work with you as you implement it.”

Bryan Lee, Richmond Community Hospital’s president, acknowledged the building that sits across the street from the hospital on Nine Mile Road had taken longer to bring to fruition than anticipated.

However, as he and others noted, the investment is double the value of Bon Secours’ original development promise that dates back to 2013.

The East End medical office building was a key element of a deal Bon Secours made with the city to gain naming rights and space in the Washington Commanders training camp near the Science Museum and control of the former Westhampton School property in the West End.

The long-awaited addition houses the East End’s first outpatient therapy program for adults with mental illness and substance abuse issues, complementing the in-patient psychiatric services offered in the hospital. Of the 104 beds, 40 are set aside for psychiatric care, Bon Secours has reported.

The new building also contains an outpatient clinic that offers vaccinations and other wellness and prevention services through Bon Secours’ Instructive Visiting Nurse Association arm.

The remainder of the space provides offices for Bon Secours pastoral care education team, community health team, home health and hospice teams and also provide space for tele-consult and intake services.

Mr. Lee called the building tangible evidence of the Bon Secours’ “commitment to improving the health and well-being of residents in the East End” since the nonprofit health system in 1995 purchased the hospital that Black physicians led by Dr. Sarah Garland Jones founded in 1907 next door to Virginia Union University.

He described the new building as “a highly anticipated mile- stone for this community. Over the past 27 years we’ve served this community. We’ve been a catalyst for positive change, job creation, and neighborhood revitalization in the East End.”

Started last February, the building required fast-paced construction to get it completed in just 10 months to meet a city-imposed deadline. Designed and supervised by Baskervill architects, the team of Gilbane Building and Davis Brothers Construction Co. got the building done and secured the temporary occupancy permit from the city on Dec. 28.

Along with the new building, Mr. Lutes said Bon Secours plans to increase “cardiology, endocrine, general surgery and oncology services” this year and begin adding or reviving specialty services for the brain, kidneys, lungs and stomach over th next two years. Dr. Leanne Yanni, the new medical director,

also is looking to reinstate a gynecology and obstetrics program that could allow East End women to deliver there.

She as well as Mr. Lutes noted that the critics are ignoring the high marks that Richmond Community has received from a respected national group called Leapfrog for the care it provides and are falsely claiming that services like heart care have been removed.

However, Bon Secours has no plans to reinstate an intensive care unit, Mr. Lutes said, though that is a key demand of advocates and critics who claim the ICU’s closure in 2017 led to cutbacks in other specialties.

Overall, the groundbreaking could only be considered a positive for Bon Secours as it continues to vigorously defend its use of 340B savings, calling them critical to providing services both in the East End and in other underserved communities in the larger Richmond market area.

One area in which Bon Secours is succeeding is on its efforts to counter alleged exaggerations included with the New York Times article. According to data from Bon Secours and Virginia Health Information, Bon Secours generated $46 million and $56 million a year in savings from 340B from 2019 to 2022, far short of the $100 million the New York Times claimed Bon Secours received. In addition, Bon Secours reported reserves of $900 million in 2019, not the $9 billion that was reported by the New York Times.

Mr. Lutes said Bon Secours uses Richmond Community as a convenient accounting vehicle for 340B savings generated through its entire system. He said that St. Mary’s and other hospitals also qualify as 340B facilities. He said the 104-bed Richmond Community only generates about $1.25 million in 340B savings because of its low patient load and would be shown as a money-losing operation if accounting for 340B were moved to another hospital.