LEWISTON — Central Maine Medical Center will break ground for its expanded emergency room and laboratory this fall, using federal stimulus money to help pay for the $45 million project. The state sent stimulus money to hospitals to help pay off its old Medicaid debt.

In a press conference with Gov. John Baldacci, Rep. Mike Michaud and other state and city leaders, hospital officials said the expansion would reduce emergency wait times, improve patient privacy and improve the hospital’s ability to handle an overflow of patients in the event of a communitywide crisis.

“This is a really exciting day for Central Maine Medical Center,” President Peter Chalke said.

CMMC’s emergency room was built in 1990 to handle about 25,000 patients per year. In its busiest year, the ER saw about 53,000 patients and is expected to see 45,000 this year.

The project will double the space dedicated to emergencies, from 17,000 square feet to 34,000 square feet. It will more than triple the space the hospital has dedicated to lab work, from 6,000 square feet to 19,000 square feet. Hospital officials said the current lab space is so inadequate that its accreditation has been repeatedly challenged.

Baldacci called the current ER and lab conditions “archaic.”

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“Our people need to be in better facilities,” he said.

Under Maine law, hospitals must get state approval for major building projects. In May 2008, regulators from the Certificate of Need Unit of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services recommended against the CMMC project. They said the hospital didn’t show how it would improve health care and help the community. They also said it would duplicate some of the services at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center — which soon will complete an ER expansion of its own — and suggested the two hospitals collaborate more.

CMMC pulled its application soon after that. Last fall it resubmitted its paperwork, revising and clarifying information. It won approval in December.

In its approval, the state said CMMC showed the expansion would benefit public health and safety and would lead to health insurance rate increases of less than 0.5 percent, regionally.

The hospital originally planned to borrow the full amount of the project. In its revised paperwork, it said it would pay at least 20 percent in cash and borrow the rest.

On Tuesday, CMMC officials said they would pay 22 percent in cash and would get that money — about $10 million — from the  federal stimulus money the state is using to help pay off its Medicaid reimbursement debt to hospitals. CMMC has gotten $24.7 million from the state and is slated to get another $14 million in October.

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Officials said they couldn’t have done the project without that money, though they submitted their state application about a year before they knew they’d be getting that money.

“We believed the state would pay its debts,” Chalke said.

Hospital officials decided not to use all of the state’s debt repayment money toward the project because its cash reserves have fallen very low and it wants to keep more on hand. The state owes CMMC about $35 million.

The new ER will expand out from the current main entrance and around the side to the discharge lobby. A new ambulance entrance will be created along the front of the hospital to allow emergency vehicles to pull in from Main Street. The project will break ground this fall and is expected to end in the spring of 2011.

St. Mary’s will open its expanded emergency room in mid-July. The renovation of the old ER will end in early 2010. The $8.5 million project expands St. Mary’s ER from 8,900 square feet to more than 19,300 square feet.

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