Bud Kennedy

‘Have you seen the 10th floor?’ Why our public hospital needs money, and now

John Peter Smith Hospital in the central public hospital for Tarrant County.
John Peter Smith Hospital in the central public hospital for Tarrant County. jlmarshall@star-telegram.com

County leaders balked at the price tag last year and refused to consider borrowing $800 million for public hospitals.

Now, their own handpicked citizens committee says the county healthcare system really needs more — at a cost that figures closer to $1.2 billion.

Tarrant County is not only going to get bigger — we’ll have 3 million residents by 2037 — but also older, sicker and poorer.

“The more we looked, the more we realized how far behind they are,” said Randy Moresi of Keller, a retired hospital administrator and co-chairman of a committee appointed to take an independent look at the future of the publicly owned JPS Health Network and John Peter Smith Hospital.

“It’s more critical than I realized,” he said.

“Some of it needs updating quickly.”

The committee unanimously voted Tuesday to recommend not only a new 676-bed central hospital but also a new 298-bed psychiatric hospital.

A 20-year master plan also calls for four new neighborhood medical centers: near Saginaw, near White Settlement, in southwest Arlington near Kennedale and in far south Fort Worth near North Crowley High School.

Before voting to recommend the 50-page plan, committee members rewrote the final draft to emphasize that the psychiatric hospital is needed immediately.

“Have you seen the 10th floor?” Moresi asked, furrowing his brow.

Officially, it’s the JPS psychiatric emergency room. Unofficially, it’s called the “bullpen.”

Once patients endure that intake center, only 96 beds are available for the county’s neediest psychiatric cases. And those beds are a quarter-mile walk away through a long underground tunnel.

Last year, the public hospital board asked for a 148-bed psychiatric tower. Now, the citizens committee recommends one twice that size.

The psychiatric hospital “is a big deal,” said committee co-chair Lorraine C. Miller of Fort Worth, agreeing to make it a stronger separate recommendation.

When JPS officials took their original expansion proposal to community meetings months before the 2016 election cycle, suburban residents also wanted more outlying medical centers, particularly near Mansfield. Meanwhile, Tarrant County Republican Party precinct chairs questioned the dollars-and-cents of a new central hospital far from many residents.

As it turns out, a 2016 vote would have been close. President Donald J. Trump carried Tarrant County with 52 percent.

Commissioners hinted last year at a 2018 election, but County Administrator G.K. Maenius said Tuesday that no date is set.

Committee members originally thought the central JPS hospital could be remodeled, but “no way, not in that old tower,” Moresi said: “It’s time to build a new facility.”

“The next big thing,” he said, “is to get the folks out in the hinterlands to realize how important JPS is.”

Commissioner Andy Nguyen, a Grand Prairie Republican who called last year for a smaller bond project, said the new proposal is a 20-year plan that county taxpayers might be able to fund in part over that time.

He’d rather spend money first on disease prevention — another committee recommendation — and the neighborhood clinics, he said.

“We will have to pay one way or another,” he said.

“We’ll have to either pay for more hospital visits, or we can help the aging population lead a healthier life.”

We have already waited too long.

Bud Kennedy: 817-390-7538, @BudKennedy.

A recent study suggests that more public healthcare centers are needed in Tarrant County. The study will be presented to a special committee on Tuesday.

Kathy Watts, JPS practice manager, talks about the new JPS Northeast clinic vs the old. The JPS Health Network is building a new "medical home" in Euless to replace their outdated clinic in Bedford. The Bedford location will close once the new JPS

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