PINEDALE – The century-long quest for a hospital in Sublette County is finally a reality. On June 28, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved a $32-million loan application submitted by the Sublette County Hospital District to construct a new critical access hospital.
The USDA’s historical decision gives the SCHD the green light to break ground on its proposed 70,000-square-foot hospital facility located in Pinedale. In addition to providing inpatient and emergency room care, the critical access hospital will provide services not previously available in Sublette County, including blood transfusions, chemotherapy, CT scans and mammograms, said Kari Dewitt, SCHD public relations director, in a press release.
“In the past, we have lacked basic services in Sublette County,” said Dave Doorn, SCHD administrator, in the release. “Having a critical access hospital will greatly increase care and will be a game changer for our community.”
SCHD board chairwoman Tonia Hoffman told the Examiner she was “thrilled to have finally received the news we’ve long awaited” from the USDA.
“It took a significant amount of time, research and questioning to determine, at least from a personal perspective, that this was the right course of action for our county,” she said. “I am ready to take the next big steps towards more self-sufficient care for our friends and families.”
The USDA’s validation of the request is the result of years of hard work by the SCHD board, employees and administration along with cooperation by local entities across the county. These efforts culminated in voter approval in November 2020 for a ballot initiative to levy an additional 1 mill to establish a special hospital district. Sixty-percent of votes cast favored the initiative.
Approval by the USDA arrives just in time, allowing the SCHD to lock in favorable interest rates. Ninety percent of the loan, roughly $29 million, is funded directly through the USDA at a 2.5-percent interest rate, Doorn confirmed at a special meeting on Tuesday, June 27. The remaining 10 percent, funded by Stroudwater, comes with a 3.25-percent interest rate.
“Critical access hospital” designation is key to recouping higher reimbursement for services rendered by the SCHD. The Pinedale and Marbleton-Big Piney clinics provide crucial emergency care, yet the SCHD can only bill as a doctor’s office, stated DeWitt, which drains revenue from the district.
Higher reimbursement rates provide an opportunity to expand care across the county, including in Big Piney and Marbleton, said SCHD board treasurer Kenda Tanner.
“With a new long-term care facility and the additional services a critical access hospital will provide, Sublette County will finally be able to have the continuum of care our citizens deserve,” she added. “This also means we will be on our way to providing 24/7 emergency services in South Sublette County.”
Mike Hunsaker, chief operating officer for the SCHD and its management partner, Star Valley Health, expressed optimism the project will succeed.
“Star Valley formed its first critical access hospital in 2002 when we had only 65 employees,” he wrote in the SCHD’s release. “We currently employ about 450 people, operate in the black and only need to use tax revenue for capital construction processes. We hope to mentor Sublette County along the same path we have traveled and are excited to see their progress.”
New future for the Sublette Center
The new health care campus, located on top of the hill where the Pinedale Clinic stands, will also include a 50-bed long-term care facility with a 10-bed memory care unit. In February 2020, the Sublette County Commissioners pledged up to $20 million to replace the ageing Sublette Center. The purpose was to form an agreement between the SCHD and Sublette Center to place health care in the county “under one umbrella,” said commissioners Joel Bousman and Tom Noble in the release.
“The goal is to improve health care services in our county and allow senior citizens the option to remain in the county for care,” Bousman and Noble added.
Dawn Walker, administrator at the Sublette Center, told the Examiner the “future is bright for elder care in Sublette County” following the USDA’s decision.
“The Sublette Center is very excited to have solid direction,” she added. “Talks of a hospital and its potential impact on the Sublette Center have been going on since 2013. Finally, we have a defined common goal and will be working diligently with the hospital district to ensure quality services for the elders of Sublette County.”
Layton Construction, the SCHD’s construction manager, is standing by to begin the bidding process.
“Earth will move soon and architectural renderings will become reality,” said trustee Jamison Ziegler, member of the board’s building committee. “We have reached a tremendous milestone in our journey.”
The SCHD will hold a pre-bid conference in several weeks “to get bidding information into the hands of potential subcontractors,” said Hoffman.
“Of course, we’d love to use local contractors as much as we possibly can,” she said.
Following the bidding process, the district will “likely” go through a second round of value engineering to “trim things to accommodate inflationary pressures,” Hoffman said.
The districts’ owner’s representative will provide oversight on the project, she added.
The SCHD also intends to pursue federal health care infrastructure grant money available through Gov. Mark Gordon’s office via the State Land and Investement Board, said Hoffman. The grants could help the district pay for completing surgical suites in the critical access hospital, she added.
During the process, Layton, the owner’s representative and the district will work hard to ensure daily Pinedale Clinic operations are not interrupted, Hoffman said.
At the special meeting on June 27, Hunsaker thanked Doorn for leading the team, commending him for his “focus and ability to stick with” the project.
Trustees Wendy Boman and Dave Bell also thanked SCHD staff, administrators and the community.
“There are so many people, entities and agencies to thank for their part in this project,” said Boman. “Additionally, thank you to the good people in Sublette County who have been so supportive in seeing this project to fruition. Finally, onward and upward!”
Bell credited the board and SCHD staff for “pushing the project over the finish line.”
“During the long, and sometimes excruciating, approval process, the board and staff have been hard at work preparing for this moment – laying the groundwork, strengthening our human infrastructure, developing important operating policies and fine-tuning our management objectives. Now we can move forward with the next phases of the project.”
DeWitt expressed excitement as health care in Sublette County takes a significant step into the future.
“This historic project checks so many boxes about what is important to a community – quality of life, job creation, economic development, retention of trained workers and good-paying jobs that will retain young families,” she said. “But most of all, it will provide lifesaving care to an area that has lacked these services. As Sublette County looks to the future, we couldn’t be happier about where health care is heading.”