Top leadership from the federal government’s Indian Health Service flew into Bethel and put on their hardhats on Tuesday. IHS Acting Director Michael Weahkee and his team went on a whirlwind tour of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation’s hospital expansion, which could add as many as 200 healthcare jobs to the region. The ambitious project is still in its early stages, and YKHC is facing a series of challenges to complete it.
For the time being, the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta’s new hospital is a white, empty shell coated in dust. But YKHC’s CEO, Dan Winkelman, has big plans for it.
"Now we’ll be going to six clinics," he told the tour group on Tuesday. "Each of the clinics is more than double the size of the existing smaller clinics at the hospital."
The $300 million project will both completely reconfigure the hospital and expand its services. The building also incorporates a series of references to Yup’ik culture, from its lighting down to the color of its walls.
UIHS has partnered with YKHC to fund this expansion. Two years ago, the agency agreed to pay for the additional personnel that the hospital plans to hire, provided that YKHC pays for the project’s construction. Both IHS and YKHC have received criticism for the level of care they provide to communities, and the agencies see this project as one of many ways they can improve local services. Providing healthcare in Indian Country can be extremely challenging, says Weahkee.
"I think more than anything, the need is so great throughout Indian country," he said. "When you couple that with additional challenges, like rurality; the difficulty with getting materials here. It’s a very unique challenge for sure."
The hospital expansion faces unique challenges of its own. For one thing, YKHC isn’t building on solid ground. The permafrost beneath the Y-K Delta is melting quickly, even by Alaska standards. According to Winkelman, some of the permafrost beneath YKHC’s current hospital is already warmer than 32 degrees, and building on that permafrost could speed up the warming process. Project Manager Kent Crandall’s team has outfitted the expanded hospital with a series of cooling systems, which will cool or refreeze the permafrost as needed.
"We have a system to add active cooling if we need to, connected up to chillers like a freezer," he told the tour group. If necessary, Crandall says that the longterm plan is to artificially refreeze the permafrost beneath the hospital indefinitely.
Crandall’s team has also promised to hire local workers for the construction, which has been rewarding but time consuming. Some local workers are less experienced, and need to be trained on the job. According to YKHC Vice President of Communications Tiffany Zulkosky, 48 of the construction site’s 115 workers are from the Y-K Delta, and Crandall’s looking to hire more. They’re in desperate need of electricians at the moment.
For all its challenges, CEO Dan Winkelman says that the hospital expansion is currently on budget and on schedule, and might be a little ahead of schedule for now.
Note: This story has been revised to clarify the number of local hires working on YKHC's hospital expansion.