BOOTHBAY HARBOR, Maine — A group fighting to save its local hospital has raised more than $30,000 for consultants and legal fees and will launch a petition drive on Election Day in a bid to avoid the facility’s closure next April.

Lincoln County Healthcare announced in late July that it had decided to convert St. Andrews Hospital & Healthcare Center in Boothbay Harbor into an urgent care center as of April 1, 2013. That means the Boothbay Peninsula’s only 24-hour emergency department will close and patients needing critical care or inpatient services will be taken elsewhere, most likely to Miles Memorial Hospital, about 18 miles away in Damariscotta.

Because of the change, ambulances will not be allowed to take patients to St. Andrews, though patients who go to the urgent care center during its operating hours will receive the same treatment from some of the same doctors and nurses who work there now, according to Scott Shott, a spokesman for Lincoln County Healthcare.

“The core issue that has stared our organization and stared the Boothbay community in the face is simply that not enough people choose to use St. Andrews as a hospital,” said Shott. “The average number of patients who come to the St. Andrews emergency room at night is about half a patient a night. The financial concerns here are fairly obvious, but there’s more to it than that.”

Local officials involved in the task force say the change will increase response time during a medical emergency and put a strain on the Boothbay Region Ambulance Service. They’re also concerned about 50 jobs that are projected to be lost in their communities. Smith Climo, a selectman in Southport, said the community didn’t get a chance to weigh in before the decision and July 30 announcement.

“To say I was thunderstruck that day would be a profound understatement,” said Climo. “How long does it take to get to Miles Memorial Hospital from Southport? Twenty-five or 30 minutes. It takes five minutes to get to St. Andrews.”

Stuart Smith, a selectman in Edgecomb, said his biggest fear is that traveling to Damariscotta with patients will tie up the ambulance service for too long and present a risk should access to the peninsula be blocked by an accident or severe winter weather.

Smith and Climo agreed that upgrades to the ambulance service because of the change will hit town budgets hard, particularly since the closure was announced just one month into their fiscal year but scheduled to occur before the end of it. Raising more revenue now will require a special town meeting, where the outcome is uncertain.

“I’m a fiscal conservative,but there are always caveats to everything we do,” said Smith. “That hospital could be viable. They’re just not going to make as much.”

Shott said Lincoln County Healthcare is prepared to provide money for training and equipment at the ambulance service, possibly including a new ambulance.

“Traditionally, we haven’t provided direct financial support to the ambulance service,” said Shott. “In this instance, that’s going to change. We’re going to provide significant financial support to the Boothbay region.”

Shott said financial concerns aren’t the only consideration. He said a medical staff that is idle for much of the time it’s on duty isn’t good for professional development or financially efficient, but that the larger issue is changes to the health care system that will force all hospitals to re-evaluate resources and cut costs if they want to remain profitable.

“When emotions are in play, it’s very difficult to relay that information to people,” said Shott. “I don’t think anyone’s ever going to cheer for Lincoln County Healthcare for doing this. Our hope is that most people, while they still won’t like it, will someday understand why we did it.”

But Climo said at the very least, the communities need a chance to fully understand what the change means for them.

“We need more time,” he said.

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.