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County, Hospital Wrestle Over Medical Facility

County Board chairman says Virginia Hospital Center is obligated to find new space for Urgent Care Center in South Arlington, regardless of cost.

The one thing county and Virginia Hospital officials agree upon is that the hospital’s Urgent Care Center in south Arlington will move out of its building once the lease expires at the end of the year. Otherwise, they are at loggerheads over the future of the medical facility.

During its Sept. 16 meeting, County Board members made clear their belief that Virginia Hospital is obliged to find the Urgent Care Center a new home in south Arlington, as part of an agreement that allowed the hospital to expand its main campus on George Mason Drive.

"Virginia Hospital Center made a commitment and it needs to be maintained," said County Board Chairman Chris Zimmerman.

Hospital officials contend they are doing everything they can to find a new location for the medical center, and said they recognize how valuable the facility is to nearby residents.

Yet Hospital officials insist they fulfilled their terms of the prior agreement by getting the care center up and running, and are not required to provide another one now that the lease is up.

"We have no obligation from our perspective" to provide a medical facility in south Arlington, said Robin Norman, senior vice president of the Virginia Hospital Center. "We believe we have satisfied the preceding requirement."

PENTAGON CITY HOSPITAL shut its doors in 1999, depriving south Arlington residents of a nearby emergency facility. The following year, Arlington Hospital — since renamed — was looking to expand its north Arlington campus, and the county consented on the condition that it open a medical center in Pentagon City.

The Urgent Care Center does not handle emergency situations or patients with serious illness, but residents use the facility for non-life threatening events such as cutting their hand or coming down with the flu.

"It’s close to home, convenient and meets the needs of the community," said Cheryl Mendonsa, president of the Aurora Highlands Civic Association.

The hospital is a nonprofit venture, and barely breaks even on the south Arlington facility, Norman said. The center is located in a former warehouse, and the owners, Pentagon Plaza Inc., charge the hospital a below-market rate for rent.

Pentagon Plaza is redeveloping the site into a high-rise apartment building, and has already granted the medical facility two extensions in its lease.

To ensure the facility can stay nearby, Pentagon Plaza proposed to move the center into a new, five-story building several blocks away, which is also slated to house doctors’ offices on several floors.

The company was also willing to provide temporary medical trailers to the hospital, so it did not have to suspend its services while construction was ongoing. In exchange, the developers sought greater density from the county.

But the county wanted the developers to go through a site plan process, because of the desire for bonus space and modifications in parking that would be needed, said Tom Miller, a county planner.

A site plan would have been too expensive for Pentagon Plaza and left too much uncertainty, said Bruce MacQueen, the general manager of Cafritz Co., a management company working with Pentagon Plaza on the deal.

"We needed to know before putting the urgent care center into a temporary facility that we will be able to build them a permanent home," he added. "Otherwise we would be delaying the inevitable, and why go to that expense."

NOW THAT THE Pentagon Plaza deal has collapsed, the county and the hospital are scrambling to find a new home for the center before the lease runs out.

The main concern for the hospital is finding a site in Pentagon City with rent low enough for them to break even on the facility. The hospital is having difficulty making money in part because of the $29 million in uncompensated patient care it provided to Northern Virginia residents last year, Norman said.

"We are trying to find a place that can serve the community well down there," Norman said. But the hospital "doesn’t want to be losing money on it."

County Board Chairman Zimmerman said the agreement with the hospital signed with the county is not contingent on whether the hospital can find an affordable rent for the medical center.

"Whether they make money or not is besides the point," Zimmerman added. "They are obliged to maintain an urgent care center down there."

County Board member Barbara Favola came to the hospital’s defense in last week’s meeting, arguing that it needs to spend its resources on more important items than high rent, such as psychiatric hospital beds.

"I want the hospital to find space they can afford and don’t have to go into debt for," Favola said.

South Arlington residents are concerned they are the ones who will be most affected by the spat between the County Board and the hospital. The center’s lease expires in just over three months, and no solution looms over the horizon, Mendonsa said.

"We are fearful as a community that the lease will run out, they won’t find a place to move into, and [the care center] will go away quietly," she added.