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Sublette County gets funding to start construction on its first hospital

A mockup of the entryway to the new Sublette County Hospital
Sublette County Healthcare Foundation

Sublette County is the only county in the state without a hospital but the community is trying to change that. Back in November of 2020, voters approved the formation of the Sublette County Hospital District by a 60 percent margin. This granted the district the ability to levy a property tax to build a hospital and long-term care facility. Since then, the Sublette County Health Foundation has been trying to secure funding. Wyoming Public Radio’s Kamila Kudelska spoke to Kari Dewitt, Sublette County Hospital District (SCHD) public relations director and the Sublette County Health Foundation director, on the challenges and need for this new hospital.

Kamila Kudelska: What does healthcare access look like in Sublette County now?

Kari Dewitt: Right now the district operates two clinics, one in Pinedale, and one in Marbleton Big Piney. They're small. They do offer emergency services. But there's things we're missing, for example, we can't do blood transfusions. And so I got involved in this project the night my son was born. Eight years ago, my two year old and my four year old were at home in bed, and I had a medical emergency. We rushed to the clinic and I said, ‘I clearly need a blood transfusion.’ They said, ‘Oh, we can't do that, we're not a hospital.’ And it was a shocking moment for me. We had to wait 45 minutes for a life flight to Idaho. And they weren't sure I would live to Idaho. So they sent a plane with a surgeon on it. And it really got me thinking that we live in a rural place, and we live in a remote place. And there's a lot of natural beauty. But this isn't 1812, we need proper medicine. And so there's a big group in the community that's been pushing, there's a huge out swell of community support to build a hospital. And we got that on the ballot in 2020. And it passed 65 percent to 35 percent. But it was pretty solid. And we started the process of getting a critical access hospital in Pinedale.

KK: How about if someone's trying to go to a cardiologist or kind of what you think would be more of not an emergency but having to go to the doctor?

KW: So we have visiting providers that come down once a week. So we do have a visiting cardiologist, OB doctors, dermatology, urology, ortho. So we have visiting providers that come once a month, twice a month, down to our community from Jackson. But the thing we're missing is inpatient beds. And so we have zero overnight beds. And so if it's something routine, like pneumonia, or you need to be monitored for pain management, or if it's something more extreme, we can't keep you in Sublette County. So we transfer 100 percent of our patients, which leads to a lot of ambulance rides. Last year, our EMS service drove 94,000 miles, which is from Pinedale to Antarctica and back 10 times. It's nuts, the miles that we put on the road when we could be keeping these people closer to home. We could be keeping our patients closer to their families, closer to their animals, closer to everything that they need in a community.

KK: And which hospital is the closest? I want to say Jackson, but is that right?

KW: Jackson is 77 miles away and Rock Springs is 100 miles. And then, you know, Wyoming weather. As you know, there's plenty of times that all the roads are closed or we can't get a flight out. So there's always that wildcard with the weather.

KK: There was the public vote in November of 2020. And so what happened after that? What were the steps of trying to start this going?

KW: Yeah, the first was the USDA loan. So we put in an application for $32.2 million. That was approved in June of ‘22. So that process with the USDA took a great number of months, but we got that. And then the plan was always to have a $54 million project, we'd have the $32.2 from the USDA, we'd have $20 million from our commissioners for a new long-term care [facility], and we'd have $2.2 million of our own. And that was always the plan. Well, then we put it out to bid in 2022. And the bids, the way that we had designed this project in 2019 was just outdated. The whole world had changed. There's inflation, there’s supply chain issues, there's labor shortages. So the bids came in at $80 million, which was shocking. And we did a bunch of value engineering and carved that down to $75.2 million. But we recently applied for an ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) grant with the state of Wyoming. So we went before the SLIP (Office of State Lands and Investments) board in December. And they really saw the value of this project and Sublette County being the only county without a hospital. So they awarded us a $10 million ARPA grant, which helps cover inflation. And then last Tuesday, like a week ago, the commissioners in Sublette County put in an additional $5 million into the project to help cover inflation. So with all of that, we've gathered the funds we need to start construction.

KK: So you guys are fully funded?

KW: Yeah, we fully funded the $75.2 [million].

KK: So what are the steps now that we have this money? What's gonna happen next?

KW: So now that we have that, we can start construction at the end of April. And we're really excited. There'll be cranes and bulldozers and everything we've dreamt up since 2019. It'll actually happen.

KK: There has been some pushback about having the need for a hospital because residents are so used to already doing what they're doing. And then another kind of critique that I've seen is that we're already struggling in Wyoming to retain healthcare, to hire healthcare, providers. This might be a little bit early, but how are you all thinking about trying to get staff and doctors to come and work at the hospital?

KW: It's probably the number one or number two question I get all the time. And we've had great success with recruiting. So far people have heard about this project, we've had people that were waiting for that, [and] want to live in Pinedale for the natural beauty and the lakes. It's as gorgeous as Jackson, but has a lot less population and tourists. And so it has a great vibe. And we've had people that have been wanting to move here. They've just been waiting for this project to move forward. So we interviewed eight doctors last week. It's been great. Recruiting hasn't been a problem.

KK: How many jobs do you think it will bring in?

KW: Off the bat, like the first day we open the doors, there'll be 26 new jobs. We've already kind of made that organization chart, and then I think it will just continue to grow. I think we're in a really dynamic place. And we're in a beautiful place that we have a lot of interest in being here. So we'll see.

KK: We kind of touched on this in the beginning. But why is this so important for Sublette County residents? How do we hope this will potentially change the quality of life for the county?

KW: It's a game changer for our community. Not only providing proper health care and life saving health care, but also keeping our long-term care retirement home solvent. And it's just good on a different level for creating good paying jobs, for retaining young families, for being an economic pillar of our community that's not based on minerals in the boom and the bust. Like, health care is a solid economic driver. And so there's a lot of pluses that we see and we're really excited about the project.

Kamila has worked for public radio stations in California, New York, France and Poland. Originally from New York City, she loves exploring new places. Kamila received her master in journalism from Columbia University. In her spare time, she enjoys exploring the surrounding areas with her two pups and husband.
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