By Bob Warren, | The Times-Picayune

When St. Tammany Parish Hospital officials readied their shovels for the ceremonial ground-breaking of a new addition last November, they touted the new construction as the hospital’s most ambitious in two decades.

And the project is indeed ambitious: The $53.4 million, four-story expansion will add nearly 160,000 square feet to the public hospital’s footprint on a growing Covington campus.

But the work taking place in Covington, part of the hospital’s “Expansion 2020 Project,” isn’t the only hospital and health care construction underway in St. Tammany Parish. It’s part of a recent spate of sizable projects.

In Slidell, ground has been broken on a $19 million medical office building at Southern Surgical Hospital. In Lacombe, a post-acute care facility is set to open this summer at the long-shuttered Louisiana Heart Hospital & Medical Center site.

And across the parish, other clinics and medical facilities have opened, expanded or rebranded in recent months such as the former Fairway Medical Center north of Mandeville, which last October was formally rebranded as Avala, and the Tulane Surgery Clinic Northshore which opened at Lakeview Regional Medical Center in January.

“The health care industry (in St. Tammany Parish) is strong,” says Chris Masingill, chief executive officer of St. Tammany Corp., the parish’s economic development agency. “Health care is a big, big player in our economy.’’

In 2018 health care was the No. 2 job producer in the parish, with nearly 13,000 jobs, St. Tammany Corp. data shows. It ranked only behind the retail sector, which had almost 14,000 positions.

The pay is pretty good, too.

Masingill said the average pay for hospital workers in St. Tammany is almost $62,000. For all of the health care field, he said, it’s around $56,000.

“That is a good-paying job with good benefits,’’ he said, adding that the jobs often are recession-proof as well.

In Covington, St. Tammany Parish Hospital’s expansion will add office space, hospital beds – and have a “shell” of a fourth floor to accommodate future expansions. Hospital President and CEO Joan Coffman predicted that shell would be developed “sooner, rather than later.”

At St. Tammany Parish Hospital, admissions increased 9 percent and surgeries increased 14.5 percent in 2017.

Masingill and Rene Ragas, who is the Northshore Market CEO and president for Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System, which is building the medical offices at Slidell’s Southern Surgical Center, offer the same reason for the growth: favorable demographics.

Ragas said the parish’s population is projected to continue growing and that much of that population has a good income and insurance coverage.

St. Tammany Parish in recent years has also marketed itself as a welcoming place for retirees, which Masingill said should also drive some growth of the health care industry.

“We’re committed to expanding access to communities around the North Shore,” Ragas said. “We want to be in this market. It’s a priority for us.”

The Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady Health System also includes Our Lady of the Lake Regional Medical Center in Baton Rouge and Riverside Medical Center and Our Lady of the Angels Hospital in nearby Washington Parish. The three-story building now under construction in Slidell will house offices for primary care, cardiology, orthopedics and other specialties, Ragas said.

“We’re hoping it’s around 11 months of construction,” he added.

Meanwhile, in Lacombe, Ochsner Health System is partnering with St. Tammany Parish Hospital and Slidell Memorial Hospital to repurpose Louisiana Heart Hospital, which closed in 2017, as a post-acute care and rehabilitation facility. It is scheduled to open this summer, Ochsner said.

The project represents an investment of more than $30 million, said John Herman, CEO of Ochsner Health Systems North Shore region. Ochsner said it will provide an anticipated 315 jobs.

Louisiana Heart Hospital, which opened in 2003 on Louisiana 434 just north of Interstate 12, has been closed for two years. Its owners had filed for bankruptcy, citing rising operating costs and reduced reimbursements.

Later that year Stirling Properties, based in Covington, purchased the facility and 25 acres of land for $23 million and is leasing it to Ochsner.

The new facilities will include a 30-bed rehabilitation hospital, a 30-bed long-term acute care unit and a 26-bed skilled nursing unit, Ochsner said. Select Medical is also a partner in the rehabilitation hospital and Lafayette-based LHC Group is a partner in the acute care unit, Ochsner said.

A formal name for the new facility has not yet been announced, Ochsner said.