CHARLESTON, W.V. -- Saint Francis Hospital's need for a helicopter pad to transport patients became more crucial after Charleston Area Medical Center abruptly cancelled an agreement last year to serve as a back-up surgery site for the smaller hospital's cardiac patients, Saint Francis CEO Dan Lauffer acknowledged this week.
State rules require Saint Francis and other hospitals with lifesaving cardiac catheterization labs to be able to shuttle heart patients to larger facilities within an hour or less.
St. Mary's Hospital in Huntington and King's Daughters Medical Center in Ashland, Ky. -- which both have cardiac surgery units -- now serve as Saint Francis' backup.
"CAMC severed the agreement with us," Lauffer said. "Is having a helipad important to our cardiac cath program? Sure."
The city of Charleston's Board of Zoning Appeals plans to hear Saint Francis' request for a ground-level helipad at a meeting this morning.
Four years ago, Saint Francis was one of three West Virginia hospitals selected for a demonstration project that would allow smaller hospitals -- for the first time -- to offer cardiac catheterization procedures to patients, even though the facilities don't have heart surgery units.
The hospitals were required to have a written agreement with at least one of the state's six hospitals that offer open-heart surgery. Saint Francis and the two other hospitals -- Weirton Medical Center and United Hospital Center -- also had to show they could transport patients by helicopter, plane or ambulance to the larger hospitals within an hour.
Last year, CAMC cancelled its agreement to serve as a backup for Saint Francis heart patients after CAMC cardiologists and heart surgeons complained, said David Ramsey, the hospital's chief executive officer.
Ramsey said CAMC doctors didn't believe the hospital should have a "formal relationship" with physicians who had credentials to practice at another hospital.
"We don't know those physicians," Ramsey said. "They're not on our staff. We don't know their credentials."
Saint Francis wants to build the helicopter pad in the parking lot of its Medical Office Building South, just a few feet from Washington Street.
The proposal has sparked controversy. Mayor Danny Jones and some residents of the nearby Clendenin Square townhouse complex have raised objections.
"We've had a meeting with [Saint Francis executives], and I told them, as that plan was laid out, I couldn't be with them on it," Jones said Wednesday. "They're going to make a presentation [today]. We'll see what happens."
Though no longer obligated to accept Saint Francis heart patients, CAMC isn't turning away anyone in critical condition, Ramsey and Lauffer said.
"We would never turn away a patient from Saint Francis in an emergency situation," Ramsey said.
At Saint Francis' cardiac cath lab, patients receive lifesaving angioplasty to open narrowed arteries to the heart. Cardiologists perform the procedures. It's one of the most lucrative services that hospitals provide.
Lauffer said Saint Francis cardiologists perform about 400 procedures a year, and only two or three patients must be transferred to an open-heart surgery center.
The helipad is necessary for other patients as well, said Lauffer, who expects helicopters to land at the hospital only a handful of times each month.
Shuttling patients from Saint Francis to large out-of-county hospitals is often complicated and time-consuming, Lauffer said.
Ambulances usually must transport patients to Yeager Airport where they're picked up and flown to another facility (if it's a helicopter) or another airport (if they travel by plane).
"There are a lot of things that don't have to happen if you can land a helicopter at the hospital," Lauffer said. "We want to be responsive to patients' needs."
HealthNet medical helicopter service, which is partly owned by CAMC and other major hospitals in the state, has agreed to fly into Saint Francis, if the helipad gets city approval.
Some recommend that Saint Francis put the helipad atop its parking garage. Lauffer said that would prove difficult and require costly renovations.According to drawings Saint Francis filed with the city's planning department, helicopters would approach the helipad eastward along Washington Street over the Greyhound bus terminal/parking garage, then past the Charleston Marriott and Embassy Suites hotels.