Johnston’s healthcare sector is booming.
Although construction is clogging one of the town’s central arteries, the temporary pain may be worth it down the road, according to local elected officials.
A Johnston police cruiser was parked in the center of Hartford Avenue Tuesday afternoon. Police kept an eye on traffic flow as heavy equipment wove its way between traffic cones and orange barrels.
Four lanes of traffic were condensed to two, running head-to-head down the center of the road. Construction pushed in from both sides.
This stretch of Johnston has a lot going on.
Road improvements aimed at boosting traffic safety, in anticipation of the eventual opening of the Amazon robotic fulfillment center, have tied up several portions from the Interstate 295 overpass, westward up the Hartford Avenue hill. On the south side of Hartford, the giant Amazon building has been erected and construction buzzes at the site.
Directly across the street, Encompass Health has started clearing land for construction of a 50-bed inpatient rehabilitation hospital.
“I think it is a good use for the area,” Town Council President Robert V. Russo said Tuesday. “It will be a state-of-the-art medical facility centrally located that will bring in good paying jobs, generate property and tangible taxes for the town and most importantly provide convenience to Johnston residents that may require in-patient rehabilitation.”
Johnston has seen a recent surge in healthcare providers locating in town.
“Johnston just got Lifespan Urgent care and we have a large medical community in the Atwood Medical complex as well as across the street at the Johnston Medical Center,” Russo said. “This is good clean professional industry that brings service to our citizens as well as citizens from surrounding communities that will patronize our other local businesses.”
On Jan. 13, Encompass Health Corp. announced its plans to build a freestanding, 50-bed inpatient rehabilitation hospital at 2109 Hartford Ave. in Johnston.
According to a press release from the company, the facility is “expected to begin serving patients in 2024.”
The announcement follows two years of litigation. Initially, the facility won state approval, then lost it, then won it back in court.
“We are excited to expand our rehabilitation services in the Northeast through this project, which will serve as Encompass Health's first hospital in the state of Rhode Island,” said Pat Tuer, president of Encompass Health's Northeast region. “We look forward to improving access to high-quality, individualized rehabilitative care and allowing more residents to receive specialized care close to home.”
Former Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott approved the $42 million project’s initial application in 2020. Then, an argument ensued over whether the facility, and the services it promised, were “in need” in the state.
Competitors claimed the hospital would damage local nursing homes and similar healthcare providers. During the summer of 2021, Hearing Officer Catherine R. Warren released a 21-page decision finding that Encompass had not proven the need for the facility.
The argument went to Superior Court and Encompass ultimate prevailed.
Encompass says its Johnston hospital will complement “local acute care services,” and “serve patients recovering from debilitating illnesses and injuries, including strokes and other neurological disorders, brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, amputations and complex orthopedic conditions.
“In addition to 24–hour nursing care, this hospital will offer physical, occupational and speech therapies to restore functional ability and quality of life,” according to the Encompass press release. “Care will be provided by highly specialized nurses, therapists and physicians. The hospital will feature all private patient rooms, a spacious therapy gym with advanced rehabilitation technologies and an activities of daily living suite, cafeteria, pharmacy and therapy courtyard.”
Alabama-based Encompass remained confident throughout the permitting process.
“Encompass Health looks forward to building a rehabilitation hospital in Johnston,” according to a September 2021 statement provided by the company’s Senior Manager of Public Relations Danielle Hall. “There is a significant need for inpatient rehabilitation services in Rhode Island.”
The project pitch pre-dates the COVID-19 pandemic. Johnston Town Council passed the plans through to Rhode Island’s Health Services Council. The council held hearings and heard testimony looking at both sides of the argument over whether the Ocean State needed another rehab hospital.
The council voted 3-2 to send the application through to Alexander-Scott’s desk.
Former Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena was a vocal proponent of the project. In his final public remarks delivered before Town Council as mayor, at their December 2022 meeting, Polisena praised the project. He previously estimated the for-profit hospital would bring around 100 additional jobs to Johnston.
Current Mayor Joseph Polisena Jr. did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
The town’s elected officials have all consistently welcomed the project.
“It's nice to see that property where there were some abandoned homes and former farm stands being cleaned up and developed,” Town Council Member Robert J. Civetti said Tuesday. “I welcome the rehab hospital into our town as another taxpayer and a show of economic development in our community. The economic development in the zoned business areas in town is welcomed and enables the town to stabilize taxes for our residential taxpayers.”
According to the company, “Encompass Health is the largest owner and operator of rehabilitation hospitals in the United States.” Encompass owns 153 hospitals in 36 states and Puerto Rico.
Johnston’s former mayor promised the hospital, once open and operating, would benefit the town’s tax base.
“‘For-profit’ means they pay taxes,” Polisena said in 2021. “This would not be a free ride. The taxpayers would benefit from this.”
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