Sitka’s last remaining private medical clinic has been sold. Sitka Medical Center announced on Monday (1-21-13) that it had finalized the sale of its operations to the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, or SEARHC.

Representatives on both sides of the transaction say the sale means no visible changes in staff, and no planned changes in care, for patients of either organization.
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Drs. Robert Hunter and Rod Vaught founded the Sitka Medical Center in 1982, on the corner opposite Sitka Community Hospital.

Bob Hunter says not to expect anything dramatic due to the change in ownership.

“It’s the same clinic, the same providers, the same employees, and there’s no reason for the patients – or the employees – to note any change in the day-to-day operations.

The sale is not necessarily a surprise. Sitka Medical has been on the block for some time. Within the past few years, the partner who replaced Rod Vaught, Don Lehmann, sold back his ownership in the clinic.

Hunter says it was time for him to do the same thing.

“At a point about a year-and-a-half ago I decided I would rather be a doctor than a doctor and a business owner. So, I started looking for a way to sell the practice.”

Hunter says he approached both Sitka Community Hospital and SEARHC about a possible sale, and SEARHC was the more interested of the two.

Corporate spokesman Michael Jenkins says SEARHC’s role at the clinic will be management, and low-key.

“Basically, SEARHC’s role is to offer administrative guidance and support, when it’s needed and requested.”

Jenkins says that anyone can go to Sitka Medical Center, regardless of whether they’re a SEARHC beneficiary or not. He says SEARHC was not looking to fill a hole in its outpatient care.

“I don’t know if you’d call it an ‘expansion of services.’ It really is, more than anything else, a continuation of services.”

And Bob Hunter thinks those services will improve. He says Sitka Medical has never had a pediatrician or gynecologist on staff, and those seem like possibilities now. He also thinks SEARHC’s ability to recruit other new doctors and staff will be a plus, especially since finding someone to replace himself and Don Lehmann has been difficult.

“We thought we had the guy when we had Graham Chelius. I think he was the perfect guy to carry on the clinic into the future, but Sitka didn’t work out for his family. And I just didn’t see any prospects of a physician-owner that I could sell to.”

Hunter is aware that the sale of his clinic might revive some questions about the availability of care in Sitka. The tension that has existed between Sitka Community Hospital and SEARHC has been quiet recently. Sitka Medical has been on the periphery of that debate, but no longer.

“My philosophy is that the two hospitals at some point are going to have to work together. The amount of duplication of effort and the duplication of services is at some point going to be unaffordable for our community. This may be a small step in that direction, and if it is, I’m proud of that.”

Hunter says Sitka Physical Therapy, which shares quarters with Sitka Medical, is an independent business, and will not be affected by the sale. For himself, Hunter says he has no plans to ease off his case load now as an employee of Sitka Medical, rather than its owner. He hopes to work at the clinic for at least another ten years.