University Health System has proposed a $390 million hospital expansion to better serve women and children. Credit: Google Maps / Composite

University Health System (UHS) has plans to build a $390 million comprehensive Women and Children’s Tower to provide expanded hospital care for women, children, and premature infants as part of the next phase of its Capital Improvement Program.

The project requires approval from the Bexar County Commissioners this month before it can move forward.

UHS officials said that “unmet needs remain” regarding specialized pediatric care in San Antonio, after previous attempts to create a collaborative children’s hospital proved unsuccessful.

UHS previously tried to partner with local hospitals to streamline services in the early 1990s, when the Santa Rosa system and Methodist Hospital teamed up to create a children’s hospital; those plans failed to come into fruition due to disagreements over location.

A 2011, a project with UHS and Christus Santa Rosa Health System dissolved after increased difficulties in merging private and public healthcare priorities into one functioning entity.

“This is one of the fastest-growing regions in the country and we’re seeing increased demand, especially given the expertise of our UT Health physician partners,” UHS President and CEO George B. Hernandez Jr. said in a statement.

UT Health physician specialists will provide care to meet growing patient needs. The partnership will strengthen the training programs of UT Health San Antonio and its ability to attract and retain highly qualified physicians who will study, practice, and potentially remain in Bexar County, where there is currently a physician shortage.

Leni Kirkman, UHS vice president of strategic communication, told the Rivard Report that the need for a single, comprehensive women and children’s hospital can be attributed to increased need for specialized care in San Antonio, coupled with a lack of space in existing UHS buildings.

The hospital’s women’s inpatient facilities are in a building that is almost 50 years old, with substandard amenities for patients and families. The present neonatal care unit is overcrowded, with inpatient children’s rooms housed on the adult floor of the Sky Tower in the South Texas Medical Center.

The new tower will be located adjacent to University Hospital’s Sky Tower, where the parking garage currently sits. It would enable the pediatric unit that is currently on the seventh floor of the Sky Tower to serve as an adult inpatient unit as was originally intended, freeing up 72 beds for adult patients in need of critical care.

In 2008, University Hospital received a major facelift, expanding emergency room services and addressing specialized urgent care needs.

“What we didn’t address in 2008 was labor and delivery, because [changes] weren’t urgent at the time [of expansion],” Kirkman said.

Texas struggles with one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the nation, and as a result the Maternal and Child Morbidity Task Force was created in 2013 to monitor the health and welfare of women and children throughout the state. The Texas Legislature is currently considering a series of bills that would allow the task force more time to investigate the causes behind the alarming spike in maternal mortality.

“Now is a good time to address women’s issues,” Kirkman said, as the expanded women and children’s services will allow for comprehensive services for these populations.

Kirkman described a “complex situation” recently in which UHS staff were in one medical tower addressing needs for a mother and caring for her baby in a separate tower building.

“We wanted to look at wraparound services for families and bringing the services closer together,” he said.

If a mother and child are both receiving critical care in the proposed facility, one hope is that the family members will be able to be together in the same waiting room as they wait for updates on their loved ones.

The proposed six-story facility will house 250 inpatient rooms for women and children, along with labor and delivery and women’s operating rooms. It will include an existing and expanded Level IV neonatal intensive care unit, as well as a specialized pediatric emergency department.

The project plan also includes a new outpatient heart and vascular center, along with advanced endoscopy services, in 43,000 sq. ft. of what has been deliberately unused space in the adjoining Sky Tower.

The $390 million project will be funded by use of $82 million of UHS cash reserves and $308 million in certificates of obligation, a form of debt that governments use, without voter approval, for certain projects. The financing will not require a property tax increase.

This will not be the first children’s hospital offering emergency room and specialty care services to the city’s youngest populations. Five years ago, Christus Santa Rosa Health System turned its downtown hospital into a $135 million independent children’s hospital, renamed The Children’s Hospital of San Antonio.

Methodist Healthcare System currently operates its own children’s hospital and pediatric specialty clinics. Baptist Health System hosts a regional children’s center, which also provides specialty and emergency care services to children.

Kirkman told the Rivard Report that what makes this proposal different is that it focuses on comprehensive care for maternal and child health, and provides a space and more opportunity for UT Health physicians and educators to develop expertise in pediatric and maternal health.

Disclosure: University Health System and Methodist Healthcare Ministries are Rivard Report business members. For a full list of supporters, click here. 

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.