HealthSouth Corp. could be just months away from breaking ground on a long-planned rehabilitation hospital in Middletown that's been stalled by years of legal and political wrangling.
"We're still very committed to bringing a 34-bed inpatient rehabilitation hospital to Middletown," Casey Lassiter, the communications manager for the Alabama-based company said this week. "While we're still technically in the process of litigation, we're hopeful it can be resolved in a timely manner and we can finally move forward."
HealthSouth first proposed constructing a freestanding rehabilitation hospital off of Middletown-Odessa Road in 2011.
Initially, the Delaware Health Resources Board, which is responsible for certifying new health care facilities in the state, rejected the proposal, claiming similar physical rehabilitation services were already available in the area.
Gov. Jack Markell, who supported the project based on its potential economic impact, publicly criticized the board's decision, prompting seven of its 12 members to resign. After new board members were appointed, the reconstituted body granted conditional approval to the proposed $18.5 million, 48,000-square-foot hospital.
Middletown Town Council followed suit by approving the hospital's construction plans two months later.
But the project quickly ground to a halt when Broadmeadow Investment LLC, which operates the Broadmeadow nursing home off of South Broad Street, filed an appeal of the board's decision in Superior Court.
That court initially ruled that Broadmeadow, a potential competitor of the proposed rehab hospital, did not have proper standing to appeal the board's ruling, but that decision was overturned by the Delaware Supreme Court last winter.
A breaking point in the legal battle might have come last month when Markell signed a bill sponsored by state Rep. Quinn Johnson (D-Middletown) that exempts freestanding rehabilitation hospitals from review by the Delaware Health Resources Board.
"The real issue here is that the [Delaware Supereme Court] didn't get it right and we needed to fix it," Johnson said. "The judge felt a competitor had standing to seek an appeal and that had never been done before. In any business, there would be clear motivation for a competitor to file suit to stop the competition and I feel that only the person who files the application should be able to appeal. Clearly, the governor's office and the rest of the Legislature felt the same way."
While Johnson's bill did not address who has legal standing to appeal rulings by the Delaware Heath Resources Board, he said he hopes it does clear the way for HealthSouth to begin construction on its new hospital.
Lassiter said HealthSouth is currently evaluating how Johnson's bill will affect the pending litigation.
"[Delaware Superior Court] has invited the parties to file briefs on the question and we're hopeful the appeal will be dismissed," she said, adding that a hearing date has not yet been scheduled.
Page 2 of 2 - Richard Beck, the lawyer who is representing Broadmeadow in the case, said he and his client also are in the process of examining the impact Johnson's legislation will have on the lawsuit.
"Because we're still awaiting the outcome of the litigation, it's hard to say right now when we might be able to begin the project," Lassiter said. "But once we break ground, the construction of the hospital is expected to take approximately 12 months."
Once complete, the hospital will employ 80 to 100 full-time medical professionals who will treat patients recovering from strokes, neurological disorders, spinal cord and brain injuries, as well as amputations.
HealthSouth currently operates 103 inpatient hospitals in 28 states and Puerto Rico. Lassiter said the average patient visit at those facilities is about 14 days.
"We think there is a need for both the type of inpatient rehabilitation services we provide, as well as a skilled nursing facility like Broadmeadow," Lassiter said. "It's our position that we would provide entirely different services, both of which would be of great value to the community."