SEARHC’s Mt. Edgecumbe Medical Center campus expansion is set to break ground in 2021, according to CEO Charles Clement. (Photo provided by SEARHC)

A little over a year after the city sold Sitka Community Hospital to the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, SEARHC is moving forward with its promised hospital expansion project. According to CEO Charles Clement, the project is on track to break ground next year.

When the Sitka Assembly met on Tuesday, it heard a report from SEARHC CEO Charles Clement. 

“To say these past six months have been interesting and a challenge would be a substantial understatement,” he said. “A lot of our activities have revolved around our response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

But even as the consortium has been busy with pandemic response, Clement said plans to build a new hospital on SEARHC’s Sitka campus remain on track. 

“We are actually in the design phase right now. There are an incredible amount of moving pieces, it is a substantial, a substantial undertaking,” Clement said.

The expansion plan includes a new 25 bed hospital with four operating rooms along with a new medical office building, and more lab and radiology services. Clement said the project is projected to cost around $300 million, and SEARHC plans to take out bonds to cover the cost.

That’s where land comes in: Land assets will help SEARHC as it seeks financing for the expansion. The land the new hospital will be built on has already been transferred to SEARHC, but Clement said other land agreements are still in the works. 

” One of the big ones is the hospital itself. The physical hospital that exists now is owned by the Indian Health Service. They have a desire to gift that to SEARHC,” Clement said. “That has been in process for a couple of years, and as you can imagine it’s a somewhat burdensome process to gift land from the federal government to an organization such as SEARHC.”

Nevertheless, Clement said the project will break ground this spring.

But assembly members had other questions for him about healthcare in Sitka, aside from the planned expansion. It’s been a little over a year since the sale of Sitka Community Hospital was finalized. As part of the terms of the sale agreement, SEARHC offered jobs to all SCH employees in good standing- at the time, around 130 of them accepted offers.

“Now that the year has passed, it seems like there have been quite a few layoffs of the people that were hired from Sitka Community- is that true or false?” asked Assembly Member Valorie Nelson.

“I think there have been two layoffs of previous Sitka Community Hospital Employees. Maybe one, but I think it’s two,” he said. “None of that was necessarily planned and there’s no additional layoffs planned. But I think that had to do with the combination of, just the necessity and the demand and the duplication of those activities, would be my assumption.”

And Thor Christianson wondered about rising costs of healthcare. He said he and some constituents had noticed bigger bills.

“It seems like once SEARHC took over as a sole provider, prices went up dramatically. Me, personally, my annual blood test went from $700 to $1500, overnight,” he said.

Clement said that SEARHC has seasonal price adjustments, but nothing that should explain a doubled bill overnight. He said that example might warrant more investigation.

Clement said SEARHC will seek proposals for constructing the hospital expansion project later this fall.