It used to be hard for East End residents to find high-level health care close to home. But in a dramatic shift, health care companies are now competing to open and expand facilities in once-underserved locations — and more are on the way.
The pandemic has ramped up demand for medical services, as the exodus from New York City turned the East End into more of a year-round community and residents sought out COVID-19 tests and treatments in droves.
However, that’s not the main reason for the scramble to open new practices in the Hamptons and on the North Fork, industry executives said.
The region’s population of seniors, families and singles was on the rise long before the pandemic. That made it an appealing location first for Long Island-based Stony Brook Medicine and Northwell Health, and eventually for Manhattan-headquartered competitors NYU Langone Health and now Weill Cornell Medicine.
Most of the new practices were planned before the pandemic, industry executives say. New facilities that have opened recently or are due to open in roughly the next year or two include:
- Stony Brook Medicine’s 22,000-square-foot free-standing emergency room in East Hampton, due to open in late 2023, for which it has raised $38 million; orthopedic practices in the Hamptons and on the North Fork; a facility offering primary and specialty care, including LGBTQ+ health care, in Mattituck; the new Edie Windsor Healthcare Center in Hampton Bays, which specializes in LGBTQ+ care; an imaging center in Riverhead and a practice offering primary, orthopedic and other care in Greenport;
- Northwell Health’s $15 million, 6,600-square-foot expansion of the emergency room at Peconic Bay Medical Center in Riverhead, due to be complete in 2024; a 10,000-square-foot Manorville facility offering women’s health and fertility care, surgery and other services, also expected to open in 2024; a 9,000-square-foot multispecialty practice in Wading River, plus offices in Shirley and Center Moriches, all opening later this year;
- NYU Langone’s 14,000-square-foot facility in Riverhead, which opened in 2021 and expanded this year, offering primary care, surgery, cancer care and other services; a 3,500-square-foot Bridgehampton office offering primary care, pediatrics and cardiac testing, which opened in 2021; and a planned Westhampton location;
- Weill Cornell’s 4,000-square-foot office in Southampton, which offers primary care and reproductive medicine;
- Rockville Centre-based Catholic Health’s plans for a new facility in a yet-to-be-named location.
Between the gradual rise in population before the pandemic and the recent influx, “these hospitals saw an opportunity to really expand their growth, and provide services that they probably never even thought of,” said Maria N. Valanzano, a senior managing director at Colliers real estate brokerage in Jericho. “Now instead of one 800-pound gorilla, you have about four of them.”
Following the patients
“It's getting incredibly competitive,” said Stephen Bello, Northwell's regional executive director for Suffolk County and eastern Nassau County. The migration of New York City residents to the East End, Bello said, “is a real threat to some of those facilities in the city.” As a result, he said, “they're doubling down on their investments in the East.”
Health care systems are not just competing for patients, Bello said: “Sometimes we're competing against other health systems for the same real estate.”
The expansion of medical services on the East End reflects national trends, experts said.
The oldest baby boomers are over 65 years old, and the oldest millennials are now over 40, so both generations are seeking out more medical care, said Ermengarde Jabir, an economist at Moody’s Analytics in Manhattan. Plus, she said, the pandemic “exacerbated the need for more medical office space in more localized areas.”
For the last 10 years or so, medical offices have made up at least 20% of new office construction, more than double the share from 2004 through 2009, she said. That share is likely to drop to about 15% by about 2025 as the supply of new medical space fills the demand, she said.
Many new clinics are opening in former retail locations, Jabir said. “Of course, this is excellent news for retail landlords because they're able to repurpose their spaces and have a tenant that provides a solid stream of income,” she said. Medical offices typically have a loan delinquency rate of 0.5% — peaking at 2% in mid-2020, then falling to about 1% — compared with retail, which had a pre-pandemic loan delinquency range of 4-6%, jumping to 12.6% in mid-2020 before falling to 8-9%, she said. For investors, she said, “medical office space is really a good play.”
Hospitals have come to favor retail spaces because they’re in convenient spots with prominent signs, ample parking and sewer connections, Valanzano of Colliers said: “If you have a prime piece of space that either has frontage on a main road or could provide signage for the hospital, I think all the hospitals are looking at it.”
The pandemic prompted one health care system to put long-considered plans into action.
At Weill Cornell, “we've had the Hamptons and the eastern end of Long Island on our radar for, I would say, probably five or six years,” said Dr. Adam Stracher, chief medical officer and primary care director of the Weill Cornell Physician Organization. When the pandemic hit and many patients started moving out East, he said, the health care system “fast-tracked the idea of putting a practice out there. … We were able to design and build a practice and get it up and running in under a year.”
The Southampton practice opened last year, offering primary care as well as reproductive medicine, a specialty with significant numbers of patients out East who could visit the site for routine monitoring, Stracher said. The practice “will provide additional specialties as needed,” either from doctors who visit that location or through telehealth, he said.
Costs a challenge
There are challenges to running a practice on the East End.
“It's become a very expensive community, obviously ... and we were lucky that we were able to find both staff and providers who we think are outstanding,” he said.
Others said COVID had little to no impact on their growth plans.
NYU Langone’s East End expansion — including practices in Riverhead, Mattituck and Greenport that opened before COVID hit — was “not pandemic-driven at all,” said Andrew Rubin, senior vice president for clinical affairs and ambulatory care at NYU Langone.
“The surprise was how strong the demand was,” he said.
Of the 3,500-square-foot Bridgehampton practice that opened last year, he said, “I think we would have probably made it bigger had we known how many people were going to be moving out there.”
With plans for a new site in Westhampton and more growth in Riverhead, he said, “We'll be able to expand and meet the needs of the patients.”
Traffic and emergencies
For some East End residents, it’s been a relief to see upgrades to local hospitals and new facilities opening.
Mary Goldman, 72, a retired social worker and school administrator who lives in Manhattan and spends summers in Amagansett, recalled a time about a decade ago when her husband Jerry was struck by appendicitis, and she rushed him to Southampton Hospital in the middle of the night.
“It was an off-hour when we ended up going, but I did think about it afterward — if it had been at 12 o'clock in the afternoon, you know, what would that have been like?” she said. In daytime traffic, the same 17-mile trip can take 40 to 50 minutes, she said. “If you live even further out in Montauk, I don't know what they do,” she said.
Goldman said she has been following news about Stony Brook’s soon-to-be-built emergency room in East Hampton, which will be just three miles from her home. Construction is to begin this summer, according to Stony Brook.
Goldman had surgery for breast cancer at a Manhattan hospital last year, but she chose to have radiation treatments at Stony Brook Southampton Hospital’s 3-year-old, $35 million Phillips Family Cancer Center. The staff, she said, “was pretty amazing, I can't say enough about how positive it was.”
The East End has seen a significant increase in care for cancer, heart ailments and other conditions, though mental health care still “could be upgraded a notch,” said Duncan Darrow, founder and chairman of Fighting Chance, a 20-year-old Sag Harbor-based nonprofit that provides free counseling, transportation and other resources to cancer patients. The group also has an office at the Phillips Family Cancer Center.
Among its clients was Michele Shenfeld, 74, a retired hospital administrator who lives in the Town of East Hampton. Shenfeld went to a Manhattan hospital to get treatment when she was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2018, but she received counseling locally at Fighting Chance.
Shenfeld said when she first began visiting the town in the 1980s, there was “a dearth of quality health care out here.”
With Stony Brook making upgrades to Southampton Hospital and other health care systems taking over and expanding facilities and opening new ones, she said, that is changing.
“I think they realize that so much of their patient population is out on the Island,” she said.
The doctor is ... busy
It can still be difficult to get a timely appointment with a specialist, since many make infrequent visits to their East End offices, said Brenda Berntson, 64, president of the family-owned Quogue-Sinclair Fuel Inc., who lives in Hampton Bays. For some specialists, “when you call them they're like, ‘OK, well, we can see you in six months,’” she said. “It’s kind of a false sense of security that your doctor’s right here.”
Indeed, the region’s growing population can put a strain on physicians’ schedules.
The number of people living in the Town of East Hampton and the Town of Southampton jumped by nearly 25% in the decade ending in 2020, census figures show. School districts have reported increased enrollment, and Southampton Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said last year that the town has seen a 22% rise in population during the pandemic.
"All the eastern communities are completely inundated now with people who have moved out during the pandemic, and I can't imagine the strain on the health care system that that is creating," said Kathy Quinn, a certified patient advocate who lives in Bellport.
At Stony Brook Medicine, even before COVID hit, “we knew we were going to have to expand our footprint on the South Fork and North Fork, so we were already designing some of these facilities,” said Dr. Todd Griffin, interim vice president for clinical services and vice dean for clinical affairs for Stony Brook Medicine. Due to the pandemic, he said, “our growth strategy is faster than we anticipated.”
Avoiding a drive west
Northwell Health, based in New Hyde Park, also was increasing its presence on the East End before the pandemic, “but I think COVID now has accelerated that strategy,” Northwell’s Bello said. East End residents, he said, “ aren't as eager to get in a car and drive into Manhattan or into points west to get treatments.”
At Northwell’s Peconic Bay Medical Center, the emergency room has become busy year-round during the pandemic, a shift from the more seasonal patterns before 2020, said Dr. Lincoln Cox, chair of the hospital’s emergency department. In recent years the hospital has gained the ability to treat a much wider array of serious conditions, including heart attacks, strokes and severe trauma, Cox said.
“People out on the East End … want to get all their health care needs met here,” for the sake of convenience and so their loved ones can visit, he said. “They used to always ask, ‘Why do I need to be transferred for this?’ And now we can handle these issues in our facility.”