Aultman Hospital plans to convert Aultman West into a 24-hour, seven-day a week emergency department.

MASSILLON  As the fate of Affinity Medical Center hangs in legal limbo, officials at area hospitals have stepped up efforts to ensure patients displaced by the pending closure are getting quality care.

Both Mercy Medical Center and Aultman Hospital have plans to add staff to handle a potential increase in the volume of traffic coming into their facilities.

Aultman also expects to convert its immediate care unit in Massillon into an emergency department.

Quorum Health, parent company of Affinity, announced early this month the hospital would close Feb. 4.

Last week, a Stark County judge granted a temporary restraining order filed by the city of Massillon and a group of physicians halting closing procedures. A hearing is slated for Feb. 1 to hear evidence in a preliminary injunction request to delay the closing 120 days.

An Affinity spokeswoman said last week, new patients will continue to be accepted. The hospital had planned to stop accepting new patients on Sunday.

Making plans

Nine western Stark County fire departments transported nearly 5,000 patients to Affinity last year, in addition to the more than 7,000 trips they made to Aultman and Mercy. 

Emergency service professionals are concerned with the number of additional patients that will be transported by local fire departments to the already busy emergency rooms.

Chris Remark, chief executive officer of Aultman Hospital, admits it will be challenging for both hospitals to absorb the number of patients seen at Affinity.

While they have not seen a marked increase since the announcement that Affinity will close, Remark said Aultman has seen and heard from some patients who typically would use Affinity for health services, coming to its facilities.

Remark said officials are in the planning stages of converting Aultman West, at 2021 Wales Ave. NW, into a full-service 24-hour, seven-day per week operation.

Aultman officials have been watching the Affinity saga unfold and figuring out how to provide local care for city residents, he said.

"We were surprised like everyone else was (when the announcement was made) and immediately we were thinking 'OK, what are we going to do for the community and make sure that services are available,'" Remark said.

When Aultman West was constructed about 20 year ago, the facility was built to hospital standards, allowing for easier conversion to an emergency department.

While plans are in the preliminary stages, Remark said, an emergency facility could be operational in the next six months.

"As we make our plans we want to work with the local EMS and physicians to make sure we are providing the right level of care," Remark said.

The pace of work will be determined by what happens in court regarding Affinity, he said. Even if the hospital finds a new owner and remains open, Aultman will move forward with the ER plan at Aultman West.

Remark said other services at Aultman West, such as physical, occupational and speech therapy, outpatient lab and pain management, would stay in place. The emergency department would include a chest pain center but the facility would not do heart catheterizations or other cardiac surgery in Massillon. Patients would be stabilized and transferred to the main hospital. It also would have trauma rooms but no surgery would be performed there.

"We never converted it to an emergency department because Affinity was there," he said. "We want to make sure that there is emergency services in the community."

While Mayor Kathy Catazaro-Perry welcomes Aultman's plan, she is concerned about the lack of cardiac and trauma care in the city.

"We have to continue to have conversations about this critical need," she said, adding the city is open to all options and is looking for what is in the best interest of citizens.

Plans also are in place at the main Aultman campus in Canton and Aultman Orrville for additional staffing during higher volume times.

At the beginning of the year, Aultman had 200 open positions across its facilities, including a number of openings for registered nurses.

A number of Affinity employees have sought jobs, he said, but many have said they are waiting to see if the hospital will remain open. Remark said they are working with those who are hoping to remain with Affinity.

Mercy moves up unit opening

Less than two miles down the road from Aultman, Mercy Medical Center officials also are formulating plans to deal with the potential influx of patients from Affinity.

Additional staffing is planned and space to meet the needs of those who need extensive, hospital-based care.

The hospital opened its new Orthopedic and Extended Recovery Unit ahead of schedule, a statement from the hospital said. The 27 private beds give the hospital a total of 37 beds, freeing up space for a new telemetry unit, which opened Monday.

Mercy also held a job fair that was attended by more than 400 people. The hospital hired qualified candidates for key positions in nursing, central scheduling, case management, dietary and more. Officials plan to continue to offer jobs to those who attended the fair.

In response to the anticipated increase in the number of patients, Mercy Emergency Services has been working with first responders to streamline the emergency room process and are prepared to provide critical care to patients at the level II trauma center.

Mercy Health Center and STATCARE in both Massillon and Jackson Township are monitoring the number of patients coming through the doors and evaluating the need for expanded hours and additional services, officials said.

"At Mercy, we will continue to adhere to our mission and guiding principles of care," a statement from the hospital said. "Massillon and surrounding communities can depend on us to be ready to care for all who come to us."

Mercy also pointed out it has five physician practices in the Massillon area that are accepting new patients.

Aultman officials said it contracts with most insurance plans in the region and is accepting patients covered by those plans.

Reach Amy at 330-775-1135 or amy.knapp@indeonline.com

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