The City of Wrangell is taking its relationship with the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium to the next level. The city and SEARHC will bring architects into town this weekend to discuss the logistics of creating a joint medical campus. 

Last month, the city entered into nonbinding agreement with SEARHC. It allows the city to exclusively negotiate a partnership or acquisition with the Native nonprofit.

The first step is assessing what a joint campus at the current SEARHC clinic would look like. SEARHC is hiring architects to visit Wrangell this weekend. They’ll scope out the hospital and clinic, checking out the facilities and talking with staff. The architects will then discuss design options in the context of rural healthcare trends. A committee of local assembly members, hospital board members and others in the community will be taking in all this information.

After the visit, the city can start making some hard decisions.

Mark Walker is the founder of Alaska Island Community Services, a SEARHC-operated clinic. He says his top priority is keeping the existing level of medical care, but with a new sustainable model.

“We have primary care, an emergency room and acute care. We’re able more than any other community our size to have that ability to care for patients,” Walker says.

The steering committee wants to keep a blue H sign on the highway. That designates a fully-operating hospital, something not all rural communities have. Dan Neumeister of SEARHC says the hospital doesn’t just speak to the level of medical care in town.

“It speaks to your community, to your economic development, your ability to recruit teachers to your schools, the ability to recruit companies to your community,” Neumeister says. “Most people want to ask “Do you have a hospital?” because if you don’t have one it’s much harder to become a thriving, surviving community.”

How can the currently cash-strapped medical center sustain those services? Partnering with SEARHC may help. The regional entity has more resources than the small municipality. And, as a Native nonprofit, it has access to additional federal funding.

As the city and SEARHC envision a joint medical campus, the architects can give a sense of where to cut costs. While the clinic and hospital work in tandem now, having a physical connection can reduce dead space.

“It’s all about how we can utilize existing space at the existing clinic, which we do have extra space currently in that clinic that is being unused,” Neumeister says.

Neumeister says at a joint campus, a doctor at the clinic wouldn’t have to scurry down a mile to the hospital to provide emergency care. Instead they’d just walk through a few doors.

The city is looking for community input. It’s still recruiting for other community members and tribal representatives to take seats on a stakeholders committee.

At the end of the weekend-long visit, the public is encouraged to attend a final meeting regarding the findings. That meeting is at 7:30 on Monday April 9th in the Nolan Center.