Chandler expands health care options with new hospital, new hospital tower

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Banner Ocotillo Medical Center opened in Chandler in late 2020, and a new tower is planned to open in 2021 at Dignity’s Chandler Regional Medical Center, bringing hundreds of health care jobs, inpatient and intensive care unit beds, and hospital capacity during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

For years, Chandler’s growth outpaced the amount of hospital beds available to residents, Chandler Economic Development Director Micah Miranda said. With the new Banner facility and the addition of a tower at Chandler Regional, the city is closer to its goal with both health care jobs and health care capacity.

“The expansion of Dignity and the addition of Banner are extremely critical for the city on a couple of fronts,” Miranda said. “The first is health care accessibility. Chandler has grown rapidly, and additional health care resources helps to solve some of the bottlenecks we are seeing in health care. The second is from an economic development perspective, where we have had fewer health care-related jobs than we should have. Because of that, we made health care one of our target industry clusters.”

The new Banner facility brought 350 jobs to the city, with plans to expand to more than 500 employees over time, according to Banner officials. Banner Ocotillo Medical Center brought 124 inpatient beds to the city.

The new Dignity tower is expected to bring between 150 and 200 jobs to the city, according to Dignity officials. The expansion will net the hospital 96 new patient beds, according to Dignity.

“We are trending in the right direction,” Miranda said. “We anticipate the city to be where we want it to be in a year or two in terms of jobs and capacity.”

Public health officials say the pandemic has highlighted where there were weak spots in access to health care that have only been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

“If this pandemic happened 10 years ago, that part of the Valley—the southeast Valley—would’ve been in a world of hurt,” said Will Humble, former Arizona Department of Health Services director and current executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association.

Investing in Chandler

Chandler Regional has long been the city’s only hospital. The facility opened in 1961 with 42 beds, when Chandler’s population was 9,531, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The city’s latest population estimate was more than 261,000.

The expansion of Tower D will bring the hospital to 429 beds total, said Brian Galle, vice president of operations for Dignity Health Chandler Regional and Mercy Gilbert medical centers.

“The expansion will allow us to continue growing our specialty services and provide a foundation for further expansion into higher-acuity care for services we are already providing, such as neurosurgery, and thoracic and vascular services,” Galle said. “The new tower will also help support our venture into further expanding our role in growing the next generation of physicians as we partner to expand post-graduate medical education.”

Banner’s facility cost $155.2 million, according to hospital officials. Dignity’s new tower is expected to cost $192 million.

The new hospitals will also contribute to the growing health care sector in Chandler, which accounts for one of the city’s top employment sectors with more than 9,000 employees in health care fields, according to data from Maricopa Association of Governments. Dignity Health is the top employer in the city in the health care sector, employing 2,670 employees, according to the city of Chandler.

Mark Slyter, president and CEO of Dignity Health Chandler Regional and Mercy Gilbert medical centers, said he believes the new construction at the hospital is exciting not just for the hospital community, but for all of Chandler.

“The new tower will not only bring new jobs to the East Valley, but it will allow us to further our commitment to providing the best care possible to our growing and aging community,” Slyter said.

Laura Robertson, CEO of Banner Ocotillo Medical Center, said Banner’s decision to build in Chandler was based on the growing need in the Southeast Valley.

“The Southeast Valley is one of the fastest-growing segments in Maricopa County,” Robertson said. “Next door to Banner Ocotillo, we have a Banner Health Center, which provides primary care in this area, and we have a medical office building under construction across the street for even more convenience, which will house physician office space, an ambulatory surgery center and an outpatient imaging center.”

COVID-19 and hospitals

Galle said the pandemic has underscored the need for more major health care providers in Chandler and in the surrounding East Valley area.

“As we’ve continued to evolve during the pandemic to meet the needs of our patients, we have continued to look for new and innovative ways to be able to flex our care in existing space if the need ever arises,” Galle said. “The pandemic has certainly underscored the importance for organizations like ours to provide response, resources and expertise to meet patient and public health demands.”

Ann-Marie Alameddin, president and CEO of the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association, said hospitals across the state are seeing “tremendous challenges” as COVID-19 patients continue to pour into hospitals.

“This unrelenting surge takes a toll on our health care workers who show up to work every day to care for anyone who walks into their doors for care,” Alameddin said. “The scale, scope and duration of this pandemic has challenged the health care system in unprecedented ways. We continue to rise up to meet these challenges, but we are now at a tipping point in terms of hospital capacity and resources.”

Banner Ocotillo opened in November, just as COVID-19 cases began to rise to levels nearing the summer peak.

"We have been busy out of the gate,” Robertson said. “Our plan has been to start with a core group of staff and expand incrementally as we grow. We are currently hiring and onboarding additional team members in response to the volume we have seen.”

According to data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Chandler Regional is at 98% capacity and Banner Ocotillo is at 31% capacity.

Humble said he believes the East Valley, particularly up until the mid- to late 2000s, had an insufficient number of hospital beds for the number of residents in the area.

“I can remember times where we were getting so much grief from the [emergency medical services] world during cold and flu season because they couldn’t offload patients because of space,” Humble said. “Everyone has a [capacity] problem of course now, but if this happened in the late 2000s, it would have been a lot worse. There would have been a lot of people on long ambulance rides. Some of that got fixed with the new construction.”

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, both hospital systems have made adjustments to original designs to account for changes brought about by the coronavirus. At Dignity, the new tower will allow for greater flexibility and ventilation improvements and a plan for staff to co-mingle with their health and safety in mind, Galle said.

Construction was already underway at Banner Ocotillo Medical Center when the pandemic began in full force last March. Robertson said the facility’s contractor—Oakland Construction—and Banner worked together to implement COVID-19 safety mechanisms during construction.

“Now that we are open, we have operationalized all aspects of safety, including adding Plexiglas dividers, health screening stations at all entrances, thermal cameras for employee entrances, limited or spaced out waiting rooms and more that help keep everyone safe,” Robertson said.

Health care officials continue to urge the public to maintain health and safety protocols as Arizona leads the nation in the number of new cases per capita, as of Jan. 6.

“We are grateful that we have already undertaken the path of building more space for additional services prior to the pandemic as it gets us that much closer to being able to care for additional patients,” Galle said.