Wrangell Medical Center held open meetings Thursday to start a second attempt at building a new community hospital after the first attempt stalled in 2012.
But rather than focus on specific requirements for a new hospital project, the overarching topic of last week’s discussion was how Wrangell’s health care system fits into the overall economic development of the community.
The Foraker Group CEO Dennis McMillian led the discussion. He said Wrangell needs a creative solution for its health care system that comes from the community, not from consultants.
“The takeaway is that they’ve had the consultants come in to Wrangell. They’ve had people come in with plans, and they haven’t happened. And so what that means to me is a bigger group of citizens in this community has to come together and get on the same sheet about where they want to go,” McMillian said.
A hospital project team was put together last year that includes representatives from WMC, Alaska Island Community Services and local government. The team worked on conceptual designs for a new hospital that would be built next to the AICS clinic.
WMC CEO Marla Sanger said the group suspended its meetings because further progress would make it harder for the project to get pre-development assistance.
“We didn’t want to get ahead of ourselves,” Sanger said. “And also it was time to really engage the rest of the community. We didn’t want to get too far without bringing in some more of our citizens to get their opinions and also our staff and AICS staff.”
Sanger said the next step will likely be a joint meeting of the WMC and AICS boards.
McMillian said the hospital planning team should also include input from the Wrangell Cooperative Association, SEARHC, the Wrangell school district and other local organizations. He emphasized the need for community-wide collaboration after controversy over the hospital project led to its failure. In 2012, the hospital’s board of directors was replaced in a recall election, and the community was split on the issue.
Sanger said she came to Wrangell shortly after the hospital board recall, and the residual lawsuits and contracts had to be dealt with. Sanger said after settling those issues and improving the hospital’s relationships with AICS and local government officials, WMC is ready to make another attempt at building a new facility.
Some residents are concerned the hospital’s financial struggles combined with declines in state and federal funding might make it impossible for Wrangell to fund construction of a new hospital. But the financial aspect of the project was largely left out of last week’s discussion.
Sanger said a new hospital based on a lot of community input is critical to the bigger picture of Wrangell’s growth.
“We learned from Dennis yesterday that quality of life in any community really relies on having good schools, a good health care system, and then many other things. But without the foundational elements of a good health care system and a good school system, it’s very difficult to get people to want to come and to want to stay,” Sanger said.
McMillian discussed how topics ranging from generational politics to value-based organizations can apply to the new hospital project and its place in the community.
Some people were frustrated that no concrete steps were taken at the meetings to move the project forward.
McMillian said it is common for people to want action, but the meetings were necessary to get the community on the same page.
“We’ll see now whether there’s going to be continued discussions between AICS and the hospital and the city, and what can be done to build the momentum,” McMillian said.
AICS Executive Director Mark Walker said Wrangell reconfigured its health care system a decade ago, and now the system needs to be changed again.
At the end of the meetings, it was generally agreed that nothing is “off the table.” All options will be considered in an effort to find a solution that is right for Wrangell. Some ideas included partnering with a larger health organization, partnering with nearby communities, and changing the way the hospital works with AICS.