When Meridian Health System opens its latest expansion, a $22 million emergency unit triple in size at Southern Ocean Medical Center in Stafford Township, it will be just the latest in a series of area medial center expansions in recent years.

SOMC’s expansion will also be much larger than it originally planned in 2006, yet another reflection of the major growth the South Jersey health care industry has seen.

Health care is the second largest employer in Atlantic County, behind only the casinos and tourism-based accommodations industry, according to the Department of Labor. What’s more, the health care industry has been growing, with a payroll in Atlantic County alone of $808.3 million in 2011, compared with $450.8 million in 2001, a 79 percent increase. AtlantiCare, Meridian Health System, Shore Medical Center and Cape Regional Medical Center all have spent millions on expansion projects to meet the region’s growing demand.

Kerry McKean, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Hospital Association, said the way healthcare services are being delivered is changing dramatically and that is being seen in the actual facilities.

"We are seeing a lot of updates and modernization to facilities. We are seeing more patients not staying in the hospital and also more ambulatory care, outpatient facilities and emergency rooms expansions," McKean said.

Overall, the number of hospital beds being added to facilities in New Jersey is not increasing, but hospitals across the state have seen an increase in emergency room usage of 27 percent since 2000, McKean said.

"For some people, it could be lack of health insurance. Without health insurance many may not have a primary-care physician, so the emergency room becomes their entry to health services," she said.

Medicare and Medicaid users are also turning to emergency room care more often because they may have trouble getting an immediate appointment with their primary care physician, she said.

In Atlantic County, the Mainland Transformation Project at the AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center, Mainland Campus, in Galloway Township, is slated to begin construction at the start of 2014. The 34,000-square-foot addition will cost $62 million and include a new same-day surgery suite with 10 private patient bays, and a post-anesthesia care unit with 22 beds. A cardiac hybrid operating room and two cardiothoracic operating rooms will also be added.

“One of the key areas we are focusing on with this project is more space for operating rooms because we are seeing more people who need surgical services. We’re moving towards services to keep people out of the hospitals; for example, expanding primary care offices,” spokeswoman Jennifer Tornetta said.

The expansion follows AtlantiCare’s 2011 opening of $20.6 million, 40,000-square-foot facility at the Hammonton Health Park.

Also that year, Shore Medical Center in Somers Point completed its $125 million expansion and renovation project, a project hospital officials said was needed to meet regional demand for increased capacity for treatment and care.

Last month, work began at the site of the former Kessler Hospital in Hammonton at the planned Kessler Medical Arts Complex on the White Horse Pike at East Central Avenue. In October 2011, following a bankruptcy, Community Healthcare Associates of Bloomfield, Essex County, purchased the defunct, 94,000-square-foot, 130-bed hospital for $2.6 million. The facility will be located in close proximity to AtlantiCare’s Hammonton Health Park.

Farther south, in Cape May County, the demand for service is also growing.

In 2011, Cape Regional Medical Center in Middle Township opened a renovated intensive-care unit and expanded surgical, telemetric and pediatric units that cost $2.5 million. That follows a $2.2 million upgrade in 2007 to the facility’s nurses' stations and medical and surgical patient rooms.

The new emergency unit at Southern Ocean Medical Center project broke ground in October 2011 and was expected to open in June, but work was delayed due to Hurricane Sandy.

The hospital will hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the facility’s opening Aug. 29. The project more than tripled the size of the emergency room, from 8,800 square feet to 29,000 square feet.

Joseph Coyle, president of Southern Ocean Medical Center, said the project was planned to be smaller about six years ago, but times have changed.

This phase of the expanded emergency department features upgrades to offer private space for behavioral health patients, larger waiting areas, 42 private bays and expanded triage areas. The first phase of the emergency department was unveiled in January.

“The population is shifting and increasing, and as technology advances more and more we continued to expand. It’s evolutionary. We realized through all the data that we needed to do something on a larger scale,” Coyle said Tuesday as he toured the new department, which is just about complete.

Communities surrounding the Southern Ocean Medical Center, including Stafford, Barnegat and Little Egg Harbor townships, are home to many senior citizen communities, and with those residents there continues to be a demand for services, Coyle said.

Although SOMC’s volume was down for 2012, Coyle said, it is not surprising after the area population shift following Hurricane Sandy.

“With the new capacity we have in the emergency department, we hope we have people waiting,” he said.

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