The new Yakutat Community Health Center opened its doors at the end of September. Many health care services that residents had to leave the community to receive will now be available locally. (Photo provided by Rhoda Jensen, Yakutat Tlingit Tribe)

Yakutat has a new health center after nearly six years of planning and construction. Expanded services and a multi-million dollar facility mean that residents will no longer have to travel outside of the community for many of their medical needs.

When Rhoda Jensen started working at the Yakutat Community Health Center ten years ago, the operations were limited. 

“When I first was here, we had very limited dollars and couldn’t even afford a new X-Ray machine,” Jensen said. She’s the executive health director for the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe, which runs the town’s clinic. “Our X-ray was from the 1980s.”

The Tribe leased a small space, but they didn’t have adequate facilities or staff to meet demand for services like dental, vision or behavioral health. Many residents had to get on a plane or boat to get the health care they needed. 

“And at that point, I had a staff of seven and could see a lot of things that needed to change and to happen,” Jensen said. 

So they submitted a proposal to Indian Health Service for a Joint Venture Construction Project. If the Tribe could find the funding to build a new facility, IHS would pay to operate it for at least 20 years. Thirty-seven Tribes applied, and the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe was one of seven awarded a contract. The City and Borough of Yakutat transferred the land to the Tribe at no cost, and the Tribe used grant funding and financing to build.

Kelly Leseman is the project manager and engineer for the new clinic, which opened its doors at the end of September.

“I have been an advocate for Tribal self-governance in particular for small Tribes,” he said. “And to see this Tribe go from a very, very small clinic to a very large clinic, to take on the level of responsibility and to increase the level of care for the community, has just been tremendous.”

A sign in the newly constructed Yakutat Community Health Center (Photo provided by Rhoda Jensen)

Leseman has worked on similar projects in rural Alaska for decades, and he’s watched what he refers to as a “downward spiral” of many small communities as depopulation leads to loss of funding for schools and local health care services. That spirals into further depopulation, he says, and it can be hard to come back. 

“And Yakutat had actually hit that threshold and they are now coming back from that threshold. We’re now seeing people moving back,” Leseman said. “A large part of it is because of this clinic.”

The 22,000-square-foot facility will offer expanded and specialized services, like internal medicine, to all members of the community and the region, not just Tribal citizens. Offering services locally will help people gain access to the care they need more quickly, Jensen said. And that’s all the more important right now during the pandemic. 

“If someone can come to our clinic and get a root canal or get a crown. And not have to travel out of the community, especially with COVID,” she said. ‘That’s just bringing more resources and avenues to the patient to not have to spend as much money for, not only the beneficiary but the non-beneficiary.”

Jensen said the Tribe worked with community members, including elders, to design the new facility. It will also house a wellness center with traditional healing services, a sauna and an exercise facility once the risk from COVID subsides.

Erin McKinstry is a Report for America corps member.