Originally created 08/17/97

Rehabilitation center expansion raises competition questions



AIKEN -- When Hitchcock Rehabilitation Center announced plans to build a $1.9 million facility, it became a player in the lucrative personal fitness industry.

But officials at the nonprofit medical facility say they are responding to the needs by managed-care plans and large employers for wellness programs and other preventative strategies that are more than a free blood-pressure screening or cholesterol check.

Dismissing accusations that the nonprofit medical facility is drifting from its mission, board chairman Paul Grefenstette said health and fitness were the foundation upon which Hitchcock was founded.

With the squeeze on health-care dollars, physical medicine and rehabilitation organizations are seeking alternative programs to promote and preserve wellness beyond the rehab phase.

Through multimillion-dollar investments, physical medicine centers such as Hitchcock are meeting the challenge by building their own health clubs, integrating standard and aerobic exercise equipment found at places such as Gold's Gym and Ladies Only Fitness.

But should Hitchcock - a nonprofit organization that receives almost $200,000 from the United Way of Aiken County - butt heads with the multitudes of fitness centers in the local area?

Recently, the center announced plans to expand its fitness and wellness services to the tune of $1.9 million. At the same time, Gold's Gym broke ground on a new facility less than two miles down the road.

"There is no question that we will be affected by the expansion of Gold's Gym, but we're after a different population, from retirees down to small children," Mr. Grefenstette said. "Our membership ranges from the ages of 12 to 91."

Because managed care has reduced the treatment duration of most diagnoses, patients are being discharged before meeting full potential. To meet the needs of this growing population, executive director Jane Boston said a scholarship program will provide memberships to indigent patients. Up to 5 percent of the total number of memberships will be offered on a sliding scale to those who qualify.

"The Aiken County United Way has been hopeful that Hitchcock's wellness services could be opened to the less fortunate," Mrs. Boston said. "This donation, along with the plan to provide eligible individuals with fitness and wellness scholarships, meets yet another community need."

Last year, Hitchcock provided $575,000 in free or assisted care, Mrs. Boston said.

Three years ago, doctors told Dottie Hays she would never walk again after a collision with a drunken driver left her a quadriplegic. But witnessing the 63-year-old pedal 2.37 miles on a stationary bike proves willpower and a little push can work wonders even medicine can't attest to.

She speaks modestly of her rapid recovery and credits the wellness teams at Hitchcock Rehabilitation Center and Walton Rehabilitation and Shepperd Spinal Centers, both in Georgia, with her success.

The Barnwell, S.C., resident spent a grueling year in therapy at Hitchcock; now she has moved into the wellness phase of the program to stay fit - a mission officials at each of the rehabilitation centers are religiously promoting.

"We are always looking for ways to take rehabilitation to the next step," said Kara Flanders, director of Hitchcock's Health Solutions. "It is our job to go beyond rehabilitating people and teach them ways to prevent injuries from re-occurring. Our focus is on wellness and preventative programs."

Quoting directly from Hitchcock's mission statement, Mrs. Flanders read, "It is our purpose to establish, operate and develop programs and services in health, welfare, education, recreation and employment as necessary for the rehabilitation and health maintenance of the population."

Since acquiring the former Aiken Athletic Club, Hitchcock Health Solutions' membership has grown from 1,600 to 2,130 members.

Dan Hillman, Hitchcock's spokesman, said the center was simply outgrowing the current facility. The proposed 24,000-square-foot-facility will be located on Whiskey Road across from Wal-Mart. A local resident, who wishes to remain anonymous, donated the five acres of land on which the building will be located.

The facility will have an indoor swimming pool, spa, an aerobics floor, free weights and circuit weights. A satellite center for sports medicine and a complimentary medicine area for services such as massage, nutrition counseling, and health and education will also be included.



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