By Clair McFarland, Cowboy State Daily
Wyoming’s top elected officials on Wednesday approved a $10 million grant for a new hospital in Riverton.
The State Loan and Investment Board, which consists of Wyoming’s governor, auditor, treasurer, secretary of state and superintendent of public instruction, met in Cheyenne to review applications for $85 million in available American Rescue Plan Act money marked for health care infrastructure in the state.
The Riverton Medical District, a nonprofit group, spearheads the effort to build a new hospital just north of Riverton. The group has acquired land, local grants, a partnership with Billings Clinic and large community support, including from the Eastern Shoshone Tribe, a neighboring sovereign tribal government.
The new hospital will compete with the area’s existing hospital, SageWest Health Care.
New-hospital proponents have said for more than four years that SageWest of Riverton provides subpar services to Fremont County and the Wind River Indian Reservation.
“It became clear that the hospital services that Riverton, the Wind River (Indian) Reservation and surrounding communities depended on would not be returning,” said Corte McGuffey, Riverton Medical District board chairman, during the Wednesday meeting. “Tolerating 1,000 life flights a year and charges that were over 500% more than the state average – and most importantly, living in constant fear of medical insecurity – was not an option any longer.”
SageWest’s Riverton facility closed its obstetrics ward in 2016, ending decades of in-hospital baby delivery in the town of about 11,000 people.
SageWest responded to McGuffey’s concerns in a Thursday email to Cowboy State Daily, saying sometimes flight transport to other facilities is necessary when more specialized care found only in larger medical systems is needed and when ground transport is not available.
“Our intention is always to provide the most-appropriate interventions to ensure that patients from our remote area have access to the care they require,” said John Whiteside, CEO of SageWest Health Care.
Whiteside said SageWest’s first priority is “high quality medical care and support services for our entire community,” and that the organization is proud of its team’s work and “honored to serve this area.”
“We are here for you and your family when you need us,” he added.
The SLIB members present approved the $10 million grant unanimously after McGuffey’s presentation.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder was not present.
Advocates for the new hospital told Cowboy State Daily in April that the $10 million was the last of the needed funding for the build.
McGuffey told the SLIB that the group has put together $6 million in equity, has raised $1.5 million from the community, has received more than $1 million in economic development tax grants and has received $2.4 million worth of land and infrastructure from the Eastern Shoshone Tribe.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture this spring awarded the group a $37 million loan, the largest USDA community facilities loan in Wyoming history, McGuffey said.
Originally, the hospital was designed at 47,000 square feet. McGuffey said that Mitch Goplen, vice president of facilities for the Billings Clinic facility services, told the group that was not enough space for designing a hospital in a post-COVID world.
Isolation rooms, negative pressure areas and other COVID-based needs were incorporated into the plan, expanding the hospital to about 70,000 square feet.
The associated costs also grew, said McGuffey.
“And that’s why we’re making this application for a grant – to cover the costs COVID-19 has added to our project,” said McGuffey, adding he’s proud of all that the group already has accomplished.
State Rep. Ember Oakley, R-Riverton, has been advocating for the project within the Wyoming Legislature.
She said the Riverton Medical District’s efforts have been “extraordinary.”
“The many hours of hard work are coming to fruition, and in a way that will have tangible results for the people of Riverton for many, many years to come,” Oakley told Cowboy State Daily on Thursday. “Improving the quality of health care may be the single most important effort that our town could undertake to increase our overall quality of life.”
Other Projects Approved
The Riverton hospital project received the largest grant approved Wednesday.
There were $33,631,256 in total grants given a green light. Numerous requests for ARPA money were tabled until the December SLIB meeting.
Other projects approved include:
• $178,200 for the University of Wyoming to put telehealth computers and access points in three public libraries and the juvenile detention center in Sweetwater County
• $1,422,761 for the St. Joseph’s Children’s Home to upgrade its heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC)
• $7,402,325 for renovation and expansion at the Cheyenne Regional Medical Center for behavioral health services
• $647,978 for upgrades to Southwest Counseling Service’s mental health and substance abuse residential treatment center for women, the Duran location
• $615,538 for upgrades to Southwest Counseling Service’s Washakie facility, also providing mental health and substance abuse treatment for women
• $516,701 for Southwest Counseling Service’s Ankeny facility providing residential treatment and crisis stabilization for women
• $2,775,548 for renovations to West Park Hospital District’s Cody Regional Health, for a sterilization department and new air-handling units
• $873,883 for the Newcastle Rural Health Clinic upgrade
• $373,066 for the Upton Rural Health Clinic upgrade
• $5,902,556 for the Sheridan Memorial Hospital behavioral health crisis stabilization unit
• $2,922,700 toward the Volunteers of America Northern Rockies division’s Southeast Wyoming regional crisis stabilization project