PINEDALE — Being off the beaten path is a big part of Sublette County's charm, but the minimum 100-mile drive to the nearest hospital with an injured or sick family member is a burden, especially in winter.
The required journey from Sublette County to a hospital in another county to get a blood transfusion, mammogram, cardiac care — or any number of other procedures — will by early 2025 become as obsolete as a phone booth or an eight-track tape.
Construction on a new $73.8 million critical access hospital, dubbed Sublette County Health, is underway and scheduled for completion in March 2025.
Sublette County is one of the Cowboy State's most scenic and recreation-rich areas. It’s also the lone Wyoming county without a hospital.
One local health care official called the new hospital a "game-changer," while another said Sublette County residents are about to learn what they've been missing with regard to keeping loved ones close to home when they need hospital care.
Healthy For The Economy, Too
Close to home is also an important economic factor. Health care is expensive and money spent on health care at local hospitals multiplies in the local economy, said Mike Hunsaker, chief operating officer at Star Valley Health in Afton.
"To be able to get loved ones the care they need close to home is a major thing," Hunsaker said. "A good share of Wyoming's health care dollars flow out of state to Salt Lake City or eastern Idaho. When we provide health care to patients in-state those dollars stay at home and have a major impact on the economy."
Star Valley Health is a partner with Sublette County Health and a mentor required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which provided most of the money through a loan. A $10 million American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) grant also was obtained and donations of $1 million each came from Joe Ricketts, a Sublette County landowner and founder of TD Ameritrade, and Dan and Kim Huish, owners of Wapika Ranch near Big Piney. Dan Huish is the former CEO of Huish Detergents.
What Do You Get For Almost $74 Million?
The new building will include a 40,000-square-foot, 10-bed hospital, a 44,000-square-foot long-term care facility with 40 beds and a memory care unit with 10 beds, said Kari DeWitt, Sublette County Health public relations director.
The hospital will create about 20 new jobs and pay out about $15 million a year in payroll, said Dave Bell, treasurer for the Sublette County Health District.
Taxpayers will settle the loan through a 1 mill property tax increase approved by voters by a 62% margin in an election held in November 2020. One mill is equal to $1 in property tax levied per $1,000 of a property's assessed value.
"We selected Star Valley Health as our partner because they have built a critical access hospital and they know what they are doing," said Bell. "It's imperative that we maintain independence — this is Sublette County after all. But in the world of health care it takes creative collaboration which could mean sharing doctors, managing data, or joining in purchase agreements."
Strength In Numbers
Hunsaker said Star Valley Health became a critical access hospital in 1999 and had 75 employees. Now, Star Valley Health runs clinics in Alpine and Thayne, in addition to the hospital in Afton. They now have 575 employees.
"We have a robust surgery program with great physicians that can take care of the community," Hunsaker said. "It's an opportunity for Sublette County and 20 years from now they can be exactly what Star Valley is."
He added that the Medicare, Medicaid reimbursement structures are much better for critical access hospitals. At present Sublette County's clinics can only bill at doctor's office rates, which creates a big disadvantage.
DeWitt provided an example of the billing difference.
She said they recently had a stroke patient come in. There was no time to transport the patient, but they were able to communicate by teleconference with a doctor at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center in Idaho Falls. A clot-buster drug was administered.
The patient recovered, but DeWitt said they could only bill $8,000 for the procedure. In a hospital, they would have billed the patient's insurance company $120,000.
DeWitt added that Sublette County has one of the lowest per capita mammography percentages in the state because in most cases women must take a day off work and drive to Idaho Falls or Jackson for the procedure.
The general contractor on the project is Layton Construction, a Utah company that builds hospitals all over the region. Subcontractors handling the dirt work, electrical and concrete are Wyoming companies.
The building is expected to be dried in by late this fall so work on the inside can take place next winter, she said.
"There are lots of associated benefits," DeWitt said. "We have people going to school now to become medical technicians, and in radiology. Health care jobs are good jobs that keep young families in the community."