When New Milford Hospital officials announced in March the Family Birthing Center would be closed locally and services relocated to Danbury Hospital, many residents of Greater New Milford feared the worst.
There was speculation the closure of other departments would follow and, sooner or later, New Milford would no longer have its own hospital.
A lot of those folks are breathing much more easily these days.
That's because hospital officials recently announced plans to construct a $10.8 million Arnhold Emergency Department addition at the Elm Street location.
In and of itself, the proposed new emergency room would be a real plus for the hospital and the patients who use it.
The planned project, which still has to go through the local approval process, would add 11,000 square feet to the existing footprint of the building and would result in an emergency room more than double the size of the current one.
There would be the same number of beds in the new ER (eight), but each room would be private, the design would be much more efficient, and the emergency department would simply be bigger, better and more modern than the cramped old emergency room.
Beyond improved emergency department service, however, there is a strong, clear message being sent out by officials of the local hospital and the umbrella Western Connecticut Health Network: New Milford Hospital is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future.
That is very good news, indeed.
New Milford is a town of 30,000 residents; it is the largest geographic municipality in the state; its hospital also serves tens of thousands of people in surrounding communities; and it needs and deserves its own hospital.
The network, which includes New Milford and Danbury hospitals, is clearly making a major commitment to New Milford Hospital -- and the Greater New Milford community -- with this proposal to build a nearly $11 million addition.
And this comes on the heels of the commitment of an additional several million dollars being spent for upgraded information technology, a new phone system, new programs, new equipment and new physicians.
Dr. John Murphy, the president and CEO of WCHN, and Deborah Weymouth, the executive director of New Milford Hospital and senior vice president of the network, have been saying for months the local hospital is here for the long haul.
Now the network has put significant money where its mouth is with the emergency department plan and other investments in the future of the New Milford facility.
Meanwhile, as plans are in the works for relocation of the birthing center from New Milford to Danbury and construction of a new Emergency Department in New Milford, the Western Connecticut Health Network has two other major projects on the front burner.
Work is well under way on a $150 million addition to Danbury Hospital, and talks continue between network officials and Norwalk Hospital about a proposal to bring about an affiliation between WCHN and that hospital.
Andrea Rynn, the network's director of public and government relations, said last weekall four projects are moving ahead as planned.
Ground testing and the next round of talks with New Milford town officials about the emergency department proposal will resume after Labor Day. If all goes as planned, the addition would be built and open by the spring of 2014.
The number of babies born at the New Milford Hospital Family Birthing Center continues to decrease, and the local center will close around the end of 2012, with birthing services relocated to Danbury.
The so-called "tower project" at Danbury Hospital is "on schedule and on budget," according to Ms. Rynn, who said that project should be completed by the summer of 2014.
The proposed affiliation with Norwalk Hospital is in the "due diligence" phase, Ms. Rynn said, and, if all goes well, the permitting process will begin later this year. And by next spring, the Western Connecticut Health Network would include three hospitals -- Danbury, New Milford and Norwalk.
In New Milford, there are still a lot of folks unhappy about the imminent closure of the birthing center.
But in balance, the direction being taken by the health network is good news for residents of Greater New Milford, as well as those served by Danbury and Norwalk hospitals.
Art Cummings is editor emeritus of The News-Times, sister paper to The Spectrum. He can be contacted at 203-731-3351 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.