Three major health-care corporations already serving the metropolitan area are scrambling to fill a medical void in the south East Valley and capitalize on the booming growth.
Two health-care groups have staked out hospital sites along Gilbert's stretch of the future San Tan Freeway. Another plans to expand into the area, and a fourth is eyeing the region. In addition, there's a planned hospital project in Florence, and Apache Junction officials are hoping to lure a hospital to their city.
The region south of U.S. 60 and into neighboring Pinal County includes Gilbert and Chandler, two of the four fastest-growing municipalities in the nation. The area boasted a 2002 population of nearly 1.1 million and a projected population of 1.75 million by 2017, according to Catholic Healthcare West estimates.
Yet there's only one hospital south of the U.S. 60 in the East Valley — Chandler Regional Hospital.
"It takes 20 to 25 minutes to get to a hospital," said Andy Musacchio, 52, of Queen Creek, who was receiving stitches Friday at a Catholic Healthcare West urgent care facility in Gilbert. "I'm moving my folks (into a guest house) and one of my concerns is how close they will be to hospital care."
Hospital expansion plans are in response to the change in the Valley's geographic distribution, said William G. Johnson, a professor at Arizona State University's School of Health Administration and Policy.
"It's a constant pattern of expanding out," he said.
Both Banner Health and Catholic Healthcare West have named Gilbert as the location for their next East Valley hospitals. Banner Health operates six Valley hospitals, including four in Mesa north of U.S. 60. Catholic Healthcare West operates three hospitals including Chandler Regional Hospital, the only one south of the freeway.
The companies are purchasing land on opposite sides of Val Vista Drive just south of the future San Tan Freeway stretch of Loop 202. Both still need approval from the Gilbert Town Council, but plan to break ground next year and open in 2006.
Vanguard Health Systems, which operates five — and soon to be six — Valley hospitals, and IASIS Health Care Corp., which operates four area hospitals, have expressed interest in expanding to the south East Valley.
"We intend to expand our presence in the state, and most certainly the East Valley will see a Vanguard presence," said Vanguard senior vice president Reginald M. Ballantyne III. "I can't say at the moment where and when . . . but we intend to be near population centers and will be following growth pathways."
IASIS spokeswoman Tomi Galin said: "We're looking and constantly considering the East Valley. It's an area on our radar screen."
And there could be more hospitals operated by Banner Health and Catholic Healthcare West. While there are no plans beyond the locations in Gilbert, the companies are monitoring growth for future expansions, said Banner spokesman Dan Green and a Chandler Regional Hospital vice president Bob Campbell.
John C. Lincoln Health Network, Scottsdale Healthcare and Mayo Clinic — which all serve the Valley — do not have current expansion plans into the area, company representatives said.
Those health-care groups that are interested are exploring an area with proven population growth — one attracting young families as well as retirees. According to a U.S. Census Bureau report released last month, Gilbert's 22.8 percent growth rate between April 2000 and July 2002 was the nation's highest among 242 municipalities of 100,000 people or greater.
Gilbert added an estimated 25,085 residents during the 28-month period. Chandler, which had the nation's fourth highest rate at 14.4. percent, added 25,364 residents.
And the growth is being felt by Gilbert's only hospital-affiliated urgent care facility, Catholic Healthcare West's Gilbert Health Center.
Delores Kells, site manager for the past three years, said the facility treats between 70 and 75 patients a day, or more than 27,000 per year. She said the number of patients — who come from as far as Queen Creek, Gold Canyon and Apache Junction — continues to rise.
"It's become so far to go anywhere else and be seen within a reasonable amount of time," Kells said.
Another attractive feature of the area — although downplayed by health-care groups — is the high socio-economic status of the area, which translates to a higher percentage of insured patients.
ASU professor Johnson said hospitals are businesses, and so they look for new opportunities just as a retail store or hotel would.
However, hospitals are unique in that they must have the ability to serve their customers at a moment's notice at all hours. In addition, they are required to provide emergency care to all patients, whether or not they can pay.
Because of this, Johnson said, municipalities such as Gilbert might offer hospitals a financial advantage, since the majority of adult residents are employed and insured.
"It certainly reduces uncompensated care," he said, "which is a cost that many hospitals find difficult to cover."
But even with the two proposed Gilbert hospitals, the area will continue to lack a trauma center.
Today, there are five trauma centers in the Valley — Scottsdale Healthcare Osborn, Banner Good Samaritan Medical Center, St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center, John C. Lincoln North Mountain and Maricopa Medical Center, the county hospital. The latter four are in Phoenix.
Green said if Banner were to open a trauma center in the East Valley, it would do so at Banner Desert Medical Center in Mesa, formerly Desert Samaritan Hospital, but there are no definite plans.
Chandler Regional Hospital chief medical officer Terry Happel said there are no definite plans for Catholic Healthcare West to open trauma centers at Chandler or the proposed Gilbert site.
"It's always a topic of conversation, but it's not No. 1 on our list of to-do things," Happel said.
Johnson said it's not surprising that neither of Gilbert's proposed hospitals have plans for a trauma center. He said trauma centers are costly to operate, and that the percentage of patients requiring their services is low.
"You need a larger customer base to cover the costs," Johnson said.
Across the county line, John Insalaco has been pushing for a hospital in Apache Junction ever since a heart attack scare in 1997, when paramedics drove him eight miles to Valley Lutheran Hospital — since renamed Banner Baywood Medical Center — where he waited more than two hours to receive emergency care.
Luckily, it was a false alarm, said the Apache Junction city councilman. Still, the incident prompted Insalaco to work with area doctors to procure a site and find a developer interested in building the city's first hospital.
It hasn't been easy.
"It's still going," he said, "but there's been so many roadblocks thrown in the way."
Some south East Valley residents, including those in Queen Creek and northern Pinal County, may end up going to a planned hospital in Florence expected to break ground in 2005. Hensel Development Group plans to build the facility and contract with a yet-to-be-determined company to operate the hospital.
Jordan Rose, an attorney working on the project, said the hospital would attract business from Pinal County and southern Maricopa County residents and inmates at seven Florence-area prisons.
No agreements have been signed with the Arizona Department of Corrections, but Rose said state law favors allowing the thousands of prisoners to use the hospital, which would have a civilian wing and a high-security area for inmate care.
"There's a state law that says, 'If you build it, we have to come,' " she said.
Florence has only 7,000 residents, but Rose said explosive growth in northern Pinal County and a guaranteed prison clientele contributed to the project's viability.