TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — Before the Cherokee Nation hosted a soft opening for its new outpatient facility Monday, Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said during a meeting with Indian Health Services earlier in the day that the tribe is the "gold standard in health care in Indian Country."
"We can say that, but it's nice to hear that from the folks we work with," said Hoskin.
The opening of the new facility, an expansion of W.W. Hastings Hospital, has been years in the making. The Cherokee Nation broke ground on the new center in 2017 and placed the final beam in 2018.
"I was proud of what we did in our health care system before this magnificent facility was constructed, but I think today is a remarkable day if you look around this facility," said Hoskin. "This is, by the way, the prelude to the grand opening we will have in approximately a month or so."
The four-story facility is the largest Indian Health Service venture in the country. It's also the largest tribal health care facility in the country. The 469,000-square-foot building has 240 exam rooms for patients, plus an ambulatory survey center with five surgical suites and two endoscopy suites. It includes a specialty clinic with cardiologists and more orthopedics, a dental clinic with 35 chairs, 16 eye-exam rooms, three testing booths, and diagnostic imaging, such as MRIs and CT scans.
Hoskin said the new state-of-the-art facility will help the Cherokee Nation further its goal of taking care of its own citizens.
"We're all in it together, we ought to take care of each other, and we ought to be a people that build a compassionate society that takes care of people young, and old and in between," he said. "That's what we are as Cherokee people, and we can do that even better in this magnificent facility."
About $200 million from the Cherokee Nation general fund was invested into the project for its construction and the purchase of equipment. IHS is also providing $100 million per year in staffing and operating costs.
The tribe is making patient care a top priority. While it not only opened for the first time Monday, Hoskin also announced a new initiative to reduce patient wait times at CN health facilities.
Built in 1986, W.W. Hastings was originally designed for 60,000 patient visits per year. In 2017, the hospital had more than 421,000 patient visits and 924 babies born. Being the largest tribal health system in the country, the Cherokee Nation sees more than 1.3 million patient visits per year through its territory.
"We have magnificent facilities and during the last eight years we've built up the health care infrastructure of our great health system, but if you look at what we do in terms of getting people in and getting them served, the good news is that our numbers look very good if you compare them to national averages," said Hoskin. "But this is the Cherokee Nation. We are not going to be content with simply being ahead of average. We are going to strive to be No. 1, to set the curve every single day in everything we do."
According to the tribe, a recent study of patient health visits indicated the average tribal citizen waited up to two hours from check-in to provider visit completion. To handle the increase in patients, Hoskin announced a "reorganization" of the system that will help reduce the wait time for patients with scheduled appointments, as well as time waiting to see providers.
"It's a reorganization of our health system that will commit us to improving the things we do," Hoskin said. "We have the personnel in place and, of course, we'll hire even more to fill this building, but they deserve a system that supports them. They deserve to have plenty of resources and support for what they do, whether that's patient advocacy, whether it's making sure patients get seen on time, whether it's making sure patients who are new to our health system get seen by a provider as soon as possible."
The announcement to reorganize the tribal health system is part of Hoskin's first 100 days' initiatives. While the optometry, audiology, physical rehabilitation, behavioral health, radiology, lab, and pharmacy services opened to patients Monday, the primary care, dental and resident clinic is slated to open in the new center Oct. 21.
Hoskin said the tribe's mission today is the same as it was before recorded history: to take care of fellow Cherokees.
"And today in 2019, with the gold standard in health care in Indian Country, with the facility that is the largest of any outpatient facility in all of the United States for Native Americans, with a staff that remains dedicated and is going to have new members of the staff, with a new organization that's going to make sure we can deliver health care in an efficient way, with more dollars to the tune of $100 million coming in a year to this health system - folks, we're going to do what our ancestors always did," he said. "We're going to keep the promise of taking care of each other."