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Weight center waits: Bariatric surgery hospital had been scheduled to open in mid-2004

January 3, 2005

Michigan-based Forest Health Services LLC launched plans in 2003 to build a two-story inpatient bariatric hospital at Intech Park off 71st Street and then applied a year ago for a license to operate it. The hospital would treat people with severe weight problems.

Workers completed most of the construction on the 37,000-squarefoot building last spring, but little has happened since. A letter filed last January with the Indiana State Department of Health said Forest Health anticipated a June or July 2004 opening.

Late last month, the tan brick building still sat vacant, in con- trast to the bustling Intech One building, which sits across Digital Way from the hospital and sports signs for Indiana Wesleyan University and Escient Corp., among other businesses.

Snow covering the hospital's parking lot remained unplowed. The only furniture visible through its shaded, front-lobby window was a green-and-white folding lawn chair.

A Lauth Property Group Inc. sign at the corner of the property advertised it as the "Future Home of Bariatric Care Center of Indiana." Lauth manages Intech.

Forest Health corporate attorney Y. Marie Paratto declined to comment on the hospital's status, and Indianapolis Business Journal could not reach other representatives of the company.

A lack of doctors in the house may explain the holdup, according to Terry Smith, sales manager for the Residence Inn by Marriott that neighbors the hospital.

Smith said Forest Health told his supervisors that two doctors from Phoenix are supposed to be moving here to work at the hospital.

"That's what they've been waiting for the last six months, I guess," he said. "The building's ready; they just need the doctors to staff it."

Dr. Gerardo Gomez knows of no other surgeons in the Indianapolis area planning to work there.

The medical director for the IU Surgical Weight Management Center at Wishard Memorial Hospital added that most of the bariatric surgeons in Indianapolis know each other and it's not uncommon for general surgeons to practice at different locations.

Several surgeons at St. Vincent Carmel have been approached about working at the new hospital, according to Dr. Rose-Marie Jones, who practices there. St. Vincent Carmel operates the largest bariatric program in Indianapolis and one of the largest in the country.

As far as Jones knows, none of the surgeons at St. Vincent accepted an offer for the new location.

"No one's really heard if and when their operations are going to start," she said.

Forest Health has released few details. Dr. Andrew Nigh said he would want to know what sort of support he would have if he were to consider practicing at a place like that.

Bariatric patients often need care from cardiologists or intensive care doctors. The surgery is risky, too, and Nigh would want to know what sort of arrangements the hospital has with other locations for emergency care.

"You'd want to know you have help when you need it," said Nigh, who performs the surgery for Community Bariatric Services.

Lauth Senior Vice President Jack Hogan declined to comment on the delay, other than to say he did not know when the hospital might open. He said the building was about "90- to 95-percent complete," and Forest Health, which owns it plus the land, still intends to do business there.

Commercial real estate brokers have approached Lauth about owning or leasing the building for another medical use, but Forest Health has no interest in that.

"They plan to open a bariatric surgery center there," Hogan said.

The Ypsilanti, Mich., company operates clinics in six states, including Michigan, Illinois and Ohio, according to Forest Health's Web site. New offices have opened in Bedford, Texas, and Chadds Ford, Pa.

The Web site boasts that these clinics are "recognized as the nation's leading bariatric surgery programs," with more than 23,000 patients served.

Bariatric care involves the treatment of people who have gained a life-threatening amount of weight. Treatment can include dietary supplements, support groups, caloric restriction and surgery to bypass the stomach or make it smaller.

Forest Health will find plenty of competition for patients if it opens the Indianapolis location. That competition starts in Intech Park.

Clarian Health Partners started seeing patients in August at a bariatric center on the Intech campus. No surgeries are performed at the 12,000-square-foot clinic, but Clarian officials have said it will be used for support groups, education programs and exercise classes.

Wishard's program, which has three surgeons who perform bariatric procedures, works with The Clarian Bariatric Center.

Community Health Network and St. Francis Hospital and Health Centers also provide bariatric services, according to Nigh.

Both Nigh and Gomez say the market for bariatric surgery has seen plenty of growth.

St. Francis, Community and Clarian all started their programs in the last five years, according to Gomez.

Nigh noted that Indiana is one of four states in the country with 25 percent of its residents considered obese.

"It's becoming more mainstream care," he said. "It's not just a niche of general surgery."

Gomez also noted that insurance companies cover the procedure and it has yielded superior results to other approaches for morbid obesity.

"This has grown significantly in the past five or six years, and the reason for that is, it works," he said.
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