Nearly two years after Mercy Hospital closed its doors, the southeast Kansas town of Independence is still without a hospital.
But it may have the next best thing: a new state-of-the-art clinic with an emergency room and a small cancer treatment center.
The nearly $8 million Independence Healthcare Center operates as an extension of Labette Health, a regional hospital about 35 miles to the east in Parsons.
“This is a department of the hospital,” said Labette Health head nurse Kathi McKinney, while giving a tour of the center during its dedication Saturday.
State law prohibits community hospitals from owning facilities outside the counties in which they’re located. So the hospital’s foundation owns the Independence center and leases it back to the hospital. An independent board oversees its operation.
ER a priority
Finding a way to replace Mercy’s 24-hour emergency room was a priority, said Brad Oakes, president of FirstOak Bank and one of several Independence business leaders who helped raise $1.6 million in local funding for the new facility.
“It’s as good as we can do at this point,” Oakes said, noting that cardiologists and other specialists will maintain regular rotations at the center.
“I think it may be the wave of the future of small-town America,” Oakes said. “What we’re going to see is more of a network … than full-service hospitals.”
Brian Williams agrees. The president and CEO of Labette Health said many Kansas communities can no longer support hospitals, even small 25-bed critical access hospitals that dot the landscape in Kansas.
“You know, there are hospitals in this area that half of the beds have never been used,” Williams said.
Rural health care providers need to “recognize the reality” that shrinking populations will require them to work together and share resources to maintain services, he said.
Collaboration doesn’t come naturally to hospitals and communities accustomed to competing against one another, Williams said. But when Mercy Hospital closed its doors, he said he saw both a business opportunity and the chance to help a neighbor.
“We reached across these artificial, historical boundaries and high school rivalries,” he said with a chuckle. “And I’m optimistic that this is just the beginning.”
To pay for the center, Williams secured a low-interest $6 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He said officials in the USDA Kansas rural development office helped cut through red tape. U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran also weighed in, he said.
Moran, who participated in Saturday’s ribbon cutting, said the USDA “essential facilities” loan program is a good use of taxpayer dollars.
“While we’ve got to get federal spending under control, this is an example of where things have come together that will make a difference in a community for a long time,” Moran said.
Jim McLean is managing director of the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio and KMUW covering health, education and politics. You can reach him on Twitter @jmcleanks.