Monday, June 26, 2017 This Week's Paper

Facility set to bring affordable medical care

// Hilltop regional health center

The Hilltop Regional Health Center made the leap from blueprints and conceptual drawings on foam boards to an active construction work site last week with the ceremonial tossing of dirt from gold-painted shovels. Every aspect of the project promises to boost health of low-income patients, the community and the region. It will mean access to health care to people from around the region who could not afford it otherwise. It will bring jobs to the community, and it will provide a model for other centers to come. 

“I couldn’t be prouder of what Community Health Care will bring to the community,” said Doug Swanberg, co-chairman of the private, non-profit organization.

The $26 million Community Health Care center will not just replace the current center nearby when it opens 18 months from now, but serve as a one-stop shop that will provide urgent care, routine medical exams and procedures and specialty care to patients based on a sliding-fee scale that will keep costs affordable to low-income patients and people without health insurance. Projections estimate that the center will serve some 200 to 300 patients daily, or about 48,000 visits in a year. The center will also offer dental screenings and treatments. The 54,000-square-foot building will house nearly 60 exam rooms between the general clinic and specialties clinic, 15 urgent care exam rooms, a pharmacy and laboratory, family practice residency programs through a partnership with St. Joseph Medical Center and classrooms for physician training on three floors, as well as a parking lot with 270 spaces.

An aspect of the center that will make it unique is that it will follow an “interdisciplinary” model that will treat ailments holistically, with an emphasis on preventative care as a way to avoid costly procedures and emergency room visits. This approach is meant to curb the flow of the some 100,000 uninsured Pierce County residents into emergency rooms for non-emergency care because they have nowhere else to go. Those added “uncompensated care” visits not only clog emergency rooms, but they lead to higher insurance premiums for those with health insurance and chew up hospital budgets to the tune of some $200 million a year. The new center projects to serve about 1,500 urgent care patients at one fifth of the cost of traditional emergency room visits.

Aside from the medical health of the community, the center will add to the Hilltop’s economic well-being. First will come about 60 construction jobs to build the facility and then 130 or so nurses, doctors and clinical staffers once the building opens.

“We are really going to see a new day in the Hilltop neighborhood,” U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell said.

The center, at what is now a vacant lot for the former Evergreen State College campus at 1202 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way, will sit at the heart of what city officials call the “medical mile” between Tacoma General Hospital, Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital and Group Health on one end and Franciscan Health System’s St. Joseph Medical Center on the other. The addition of the new medical center will strengthen efforts to continue the neighborhood’s revitalization into a vibrant economic hub of Tacoma, Mayor Marilyn Strickland said.

Hilltop was once the second largest retail center in the city. Decades of urban neglect and the rise of suburban retailers chipped away at that standing and was replaced by high crime rates and boarded up shops. Hilltop has marched back from once having the highest crime rates in the city to now having the lowest. The center will aid those rejuvenation efforts by generating more interest from other developers, patients turned potential shoppers visiting the center and more activity in the neighborhood. 

“The ‘medical mile’ doesn’t replace the Hilltop name,” Strickland said. “It reclaims it.”