By Brad Hicks

Over the nearly four years since Mountain States Health Alliance acquired Unicoi County Memorial Hospital, most of the work needed to bring a new hospital to Unicoi County has occurred behind the scenes in boardrooms and offices.

The time has now come for officials to roll up their sleeves and turn some earth.

A groundbreaking ceremony for the new UCMH will be held July 26 beginning at 11 a.m. at 2030 Temple Hill Road, the site of the new hospital.

UCMH Administrator Eric Carroll said the groundbreaking ceremony marks the changeover in the new hospital process from the intangible to the physical.

“When we actually break the ground, when we have the equipment onsite, it becomes, certainly, more real for the community and really shows that we’re actually moving forward with what we said we had planned to do,” Carroll said.

Carroll said the public is invited and encouraged to attend the groundbreaking event.

“We feel like it’s not just a celebration for us as a hospital, it’s a celebration for the entire community,” Carroll said.

Carroll said it is not yet known just how soon construction on the new UCMH will get underway following the groundbreaking ceremony, but he expects this work to begin shortly after the event. The first phase of the construction, Carroll said, involves the site preparation work necessary for the construction of the new hospital on the grounds.

MSHA officials project that the new UCMH will open its doors in the fall of 2018.

The replacement UCMH will have 20 beds in all, 10 for the facility’s emergency department and 10 for inpatient services, Carroll said. Along with a 24-hour emergency department and inpatient acute-care services, the new facility will offer patients the same services offered by the current UCMH.

“We plan to use a lot of new equipment, a lot of upgraded equipment, but as far as the services, they’re going to be the same,” Carroll said, adding these services include diagnostic imaging and laboratory services.

The facility will also have a community education area and medical office spaces.

MSHA’s acquisition of UCMH, which for 60 years had operated as a publicly-owned community hospital, became official in November 2013 after months of discussion and review. A caveat of MSHA’s acquisition agreement was the construction of a new hospital within Erwin’s municipal limits. A visioning committee tasked with determining the size of the new facility and the scope of the services it would offer was formed and began meeting after the acquisition was made official.

Plans call for the construction of the new hospital on more than 40 acres of land located just off the Jackson Love Highway Exit.

In December 2016, the Tennessee Health Services and Development Agency granted a Certificate of Need to MSHA for the new UCMH. A Certificate of Need is a state permit for the establishment or modification of a health care institution, facility, or service at a designated location, according to MSHA.

This step essentially cleared the way for MSHA to proceed with the process of bringing a new UCMH to Unicoi County.

“That was certainly a major milestone in really finalizing that the project was going to move forward was to get that Certificate of Need approved by the state,” Carroll said.

The architect for the UCMH replacement project is Earl Swensson Associates, and the construction firm previously selected is Layton Construction.

Invitations for the groundbreaking ceremony went out to local and state officials last week, and the medical staff at UCMH has been invited to attend, Carroll said. Carroll also said both UCMH staff and members of the community are eagerly awaiting the completion of construction and the opening of the new hospital.

“Everyone that I’ve been in contact with is eager and excited and anxious for us to get started on the project,” Carroll said. “…(The groundbreaking) makes it real. We’ve had a lot of talk for a long time in preparation for this moment. When that project actually starts then all of that actually becomes a reality for everybody involved.”

Officials feel the new UCMH will have a positive impact on health care in Unicoi County and the surrounding areas.

“I think one of our board members actually said it very well at the Certificate of Need hearing – ‘We have a lot of great things in Unicoi County, but having a full-service hospital is really one of the crown jewels of the community and seeing that a brand new healthcare facility is going to be built is something that is not only great for health care in the region but is also very marketable for everybody in the community. It’s a great thing for everybody,’” Carroll said.

The groundbreaking will be followed by entertainment and lunch.

Those interested in attending are asked to RSVP by July 21 by contacting MSHA at unicoihospital@msha.com.