Virtua Plans Expansion at Camden Outpatient Center

The following is an article from the Courier Post (2/12/17)

A rendering shows the planned Virtua Camden Family Health Center, expected to rise on Mount Ephraim Avenue at Everett Street.

A South Jersey health system with roots in this impoverished city is planning to grow here.

Virtua, now best known as an Evesham-based hospital operator, is pursuing a $22 million project at its century-old campus in Camden.

The 34,500-square-foot Family Health Center, expected to open by the fall of 2018, will allow Virtua to consolidate and upgrade medical services now scattered throughout a  former hospital at Mount Ephraim and Atlantic avenues.

“It’s not just better health care,” Virtua President and CEO Richard Miller said during a recent tour of the existing maze-like complex. “It’s better access to a better system."

Virtua, which closed its inpatient beds in Camden in 2000, has transformed the sprawling complex of red-brick buildings into a site for outpatient health care and community programs. But the transition has led to cramped conditions at an inner-city facility that handles some 90,000 visits annually.

A dental center, for instance, is wedged into a building erected in 1912, one with a weathered sign that read “Marion Childs Hospital for Children.” Virtua’s CASTLE program, which provides behavioral health services for troubled children, occupies an area that once held operating rooms.

And the current family health center is squeezed into a former nursing school that dates to the 1950s. Among other signs of space problems are a shortage of exam rooms and a lab inside a converted closet.

“This was never designed for 18,000 visits (a year),” says Dr. Amit Bhalodia, medical director for the family health center. “The more space we have, the more we can do.”
Bhalodia says the planned Family Health Center will have flexible space allowing for 16 to 18 examination rooms, compared to 10 now.

Two exam rooms will be large enough to hold medical teams that could include specialists and social workers, notes Joan Gray, the Camden complex’s administrator. A video hookup will allow access to experts in other locations.

The primary-care practice will provide urgent-care services into the evening hours, according to Gray. That should help divert traffic from Virtua’s emergency room at the site, which sees about 36,000 visits a year.

“We’ll have more providers and more specialty care,” Bhalodia said. “We’re really excited to be offering that level of care.”

The planned two-story center also will hold facilities for physical therapy, podiatry and other specialties.
Tenants at the complex include the 850-student Freedom Prep Charter School. It occupies a former nursing ward where patients’ rooms have been converted into classrooms.

The complex also holds a pediatric medical day care center and a senior day care center, among other services.

Those tenants “have been specifically chosen because they create a benefit to the community,” Virtua notes in an application seeking approval for the project from Camden’s planning board.

The board had been expected to consider the proposal Thursday, but the city canceled operations that day due to a feared snowstorm.

The center is to rise in a parking lot at Mount Ephraim Avenue and Everett Street, adjacent to the current family health unit. Once it’s complete, workers will demolish about 42,000 square feet of the existing complex to restore parking spaces.

Demolition is expected to focus on the existing family health facility.

“This is a complex project,” said James Rivard, a Virtua executive overseeing the planned construction. “We were originally planning to renovate the family health center but we couldn’t achieve what we wanted to do. This is going to be so much more convenient for our patients.”
Virtua started in Camden in 1887 as the West Jersey Homeopathic Association, a charity hospital that emphasized care for women. It moved in 1915 to the 18-acre site at Mount Ephraim Avenue, building a 144-bed hospital there.

The complex is on the border between the struggling neighborhoods of Whitman Park and Liberty Park, in a city where many residents face chronic health issues like diabetes, hypertension and obesity.

Virtua seeks to connect with those residents through education and outreach programs, a farmer’s market and other community events, says Gray.

That connection works for Awilda Polo, an East Camden woman who receives dental care and physical therapy at the Virtua complex.

“This was the first dental I had,” said Polo, who described her experience as life-changing. “You can get close to people when you talk to them,” adds the mother of four, who also takes her children to the dental center.

“Many people in Camden have never gone to a dentist,” notes Richard D’Eustachio, DDS, who oversees the dental program. “This really does give kids a smile.”


February 13, 2017