The first phase of Kaweah Delta Medical Center’s emergency department expansion should up and running before summer is in full swing, says Gary Herbst, CEO of the Kaweah Delta Health Care District.
What the hospital is calling its “Fast Track” area–an eight-bed, dedicated area for patients with non-life threatening conditions that will serve as an triage area for the ER at its entrance–has essentially completed construction. Staffing, stocking of supplies and a final state inspection should be done by the end of May.
“We think by mid-June it will be up and running,” Herbst said.
More Beds by Autumn
The rest of the ER expansion project is also continuing apace, with construction of a 10-bed area known as Zone 4 also wrapping up in May.
“I would say (it will be) safely open by October,” Herbst said. “We’ll have added 18 beds.”
The largest portion of the project, known as Zone 5, is also moving forward, but at a slower pace.
“Zone 5 is the big one, taking the ER all the way to the helipad (located in the east of the Medical Center at Locust Avenue),” Herbst said. “Unfortunately, it won’t be complete until July 2020.”
Adding staffing, supplying and state certification, the new ER addition won’t be seeing patients until November of next year. But, when the project is complete–with a total of 74 beds–Visalia should have an emergency department more able to handle a higher number of patients.
“We’ll have doubled the size of the ER,” Herbst said. “It’ll be very modern (with) larger rooms.”
About the same time the first phase of the ER expansion is complete, the hospital should also have finished building additional visitor parking. The buildings that once occupied the land at the corner of West Street and Acequia Avenue are gone, and the area will soon be paved.
“Checker’s and Doc’s have been razed,” Herbst said of the two eateries that once stood at the corner. The new public parking area should be open by May, he said.
New Business Model
Meanwhile, KDHCD is hoping to change the way it does business as the climate of healthcare evolves.
“The role of hospitals is changing,” Herbst said. “More and more we’re being asked to keep the population healthy. That’s why you see them (hospital districts) developing clinics.”
Currently KDHCD operates five clinics–four in rural areas and one in downtown Visalia housing a family medicine practice–that treated 200,000 patients in 2018.
The District also operates two urgent care centers and a chronic disease treatment facility. The plan is to regroup them under a new brand, Sequoia Health and Wellness Center, and seek status as federally qualified health centers (FQHC) by the beginning of autumn.
“The application is going in today,” Herbst said. “Likely, we won’t be until September we hear back.”
The move is intended to bring more physicians to the area, lower the cost of treatment and provide additional funding for the District.
“For the patients, it will be transparent,” Herbst said. “The buildings will have a new name on them.”
‘Another Option’ for KDHCD
For the District, however, it could signal a “potentially profound change,” as the facilities are able to adopt regulations only available to FQHCs.
“It gives us another option,” Herbst said.
If FQHC status is approved, the clinics will be able to hire doctors rather than contracting for their services, apply for grants that are not currently available to them and increase the amount of compensation they receive from government-subsidized medical care programs.
The final point is especially important in Tulare County, which has the highest enrollment in MediCal in the state, with up to 60% of the population using its services.
The ability to hire doctors should also be a key to attracting them to the area.
“A lot of physicians want to be employed coming out of residency,” Herbst said.
Doctors who become employees of FQHCs rather than contractors will be eligible for federal loan forgiveness programs, a particular boon for new physicians who carry heavy debt loads following years of medical school. The hope is doctors hired to work at the Districts clinics and specialty centers will put down roots and remain in the area, helping to raise the Valley’s very low doctor-to-patient ratio.
“We have an incredible shortage here,” Herbst said. “We’re looking to pull out all the stops.”