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LibbyMt.com > News > March 2009 > Stimulus funds eyed for hospital

Kootenai Valley Record. Photo by Kootenai Valley Record.
Kootenai Valley Record

St. John's Lutheran Hospital. Photo by LibbyMT.com.
St. John's Lutheran Hospital
Stimulus funds eyed for hospital
by Brent Shrum, Kootenai Valley Record
March 12, 2009

Federal economic stimulus dollars are being targeted to put construction of a new hospital facility in Libby on the fast track.

While funding for the project – estimated at around $36 million – hasn’t been secured, design and construction documents are being finalized, St. John’s Lutheran Hospital chief executive officer Bill Patten said last week. At a normal pace, that puts groundbreaking about four months away.

"If President Obama were to give me a call tomorrow and say, ‘Bill, we’ve got your money to build a new hospital through the stimulus package, we could do it quicker than that,’" Patten said.

St. John’s has been pursuing stimulus funds through aggressive lobbying of Montana’s congressional delegation, state legislators and the governor’s office as well as agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture that will be deciding how to distribute the money.

"Some people are under the impression that the stimulus money has all been spoken for, but that’s not the case," Patten said.

Stimulus money would be the quickest way to get construction moving, but that may be a long shot, Patten acknowledged. The hospital has also submitted three separate requests to fund portions of the project, adding up to about $2.3 million, through the regular federal appropriations process, Patten said.

Decisions on the stimulus funds are expected within the next two to four months, Patten said, but normal appropriations won’t be approved until late summer or early fall.

"If that would be the case, it would be unlikely that we would be able to start the project this year," he said.

St. John’s is also looking at other sources of funding such as private foundations, and the hospital’s financial consultants are looking at the option of simply borrowing the money, Patten said.

"We believe the why of the project – why we need to do this – hasn’t changed because of the bad economy," he said. "But the how – how we’re going to pay for it – may have changed."

The hospital foundation has set a goal of raising $1.5 million for the project. To kick off the fundraising effort, hospital employees were asked to donate "an hour a paycheck," and 80 percent – not including doctors, who will be the focus of a separate campaign – signed up, Patten said.

"I think that’s a very tangible example of how our employees are really in support of this project," he said.

The hospital board voted last August to build a new facility, following a year and a half of planning. The planned location of the new hospital – between Second and Third streets east of Libby Care Center – was announced in January after a deal was closed to purchase less than an acre of private property needed for the project.

The hospital is also negotiating with the Kootenai Business Park Industrial District for another small parcel and with the city of Libby for the abandonment of portions of Second Street and Dakota Avenue.

Concerns about the current facility range from outdated surgery suites to cramped patient rooms with shared toilet facilities. St. John’s was completed in 1952 with expansions and remodeling in 1983, 2002, and 2006. Advancements in healthcare delivery have stretched the current facility to its limits both in space and infrastructure, Patten said.

At 77,000 square feet, the new building will be about 20,000 square feet bigger than the current hospital but will have the same number of beds – 25. The decision to keep the number of beds at 25 was made in part because that will maintain the hospital’s status as a "critical access" facility, which means more federal reimbursement for costs, Patten said. Projections are that 22 beds would be sufficient, he said, noting that in his four years with St. John’s the most beds in use at one time has been 23. The normal occupancy is nine to 11 in the winter and 13 to 14 in the summer.

The new hospital is being designed to allow room for growth in departments most likely to need it, including the emergency room, the operating rooms, the laboratory and the imaging department, Patten said.

After the new hospital is completed, the basement of the existing building will be used by St. John’s as a warehouse facility, Patten said. The hospital currently rents storage space in various locations.

Plans for the upper floor haven’t been finalized, but possibilities include using portions of the building for assisted living, psychiatric, rehabilitation and/or daycare facilities, Patten said. The building could also house other medical offices and some hospital departments such as laundry or administration, he said.

Editor’s Note: See the March 10, 2009 edition of the Kootenai Valley Record for the printed version of this story. The Kootenai Valley Record publishes once a week, now on Tuesday, in Libby, Montana. They are a locally owned community newspaper, located at 403 Mineral Avenue in Libby. For in-county and out-of-county subscription information, call 406-293-2424, or e-mail kvrecord@gmail.com.

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