PLUMMER, Idaho—“This building was the vision of our ancestors, our Coeur d’Alene people,” tribal chairman Chief Allan said. “We’ll be able to provide health care second to none for our people and our community. It’s truly amazing. It’s awesome.”
Chairman Allan was speaking to a large crowd of hundreds who had gathered for the Grand Opening of the Benewah Medical & Wellness Center on October 19. It marks the fourth phase, fourth major improvement, of facilities for medical care for not only tribal members but also non-Indian community members.
Ernie Stensgar served as tribal chairman for many years and now is vice-chairman. He told of the early days and the changes he’s seen over the years. “I can still see those men and women [of yesterday] wearing moccasins, going to the doctor in an outdated building in Desmet. There were long lines. The lines were outside. There wasn’t a waiting room inside. They took them one by one—men, women, and children. I was one of the children.”
Construction phases 1, 2 and 3 continually improved medical facilities in subsequent years. “Now in 2012 we have a brand new facility that’s state of the art, staffed with the best physicians we can find, the best nurses and the best backup staff. Our pharmacy is tremendous. I went to the dental clinic to look at it. I think there are nine chairs and it’s all open,” Stensgar said. “I might just go back to the dentist so I can look out the window,” he laughed.
The new facility is large: 50,000 square feet. Registration for incoming patients is held in a two-story tall, glass-enclosed circular room which extends above the remainder of the building. It’s light, offering views to the outside and comfortable seating provides a relaxing atmosphere while waiting to be called.
Mike Crapo, U.S. Senator from Idaho, attended the opening and congratulated the tribe and leadership of the Benewah Medical and Wellness Center, pointing out that it’s the “only provider of medical, dental and behavioral health services for an expansive rural area. This expansion has provided for 26 medical exam rooms, 9 dental offertories, labs, a pharmacy, a counseling office, and preventative health services.”
There are presently 170 employees at the new Center including three physicians, two nurse practitioners and three dentists. A fourth physician and a Medical Director will be added at the end of the year.
Sen. Crapo called the Coeur d’Alene Tribe and the Medical and Wellness Center’s work to accomplish this project “remarkable. The proactive approach of all those involved will help insure access to quality health care.”
Funding for the project came from three sources. Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), through the Affordable Care Act, provided $11.8 million, because the facility will serve as a community health center. The Coeur d’Alene Tribe provided $2.4 million, and the Benewah Medical Wellness Center added another $3.1 million for a final total of $17.3 million.
Gary Leva, who worked for the tribe for several few years before leaving to freelance for other tribes, is the CEO for the Center. “I’ve had the privilege and honor with a large dose of luck to have been present at all four of our grand openings,” he said. “We’ve really only existed for 22 years but what a journey this has been.
“The tribal council under the leadership of Chief Allan has really, really walked their talk. We are so grateful for his and tribal council’s support,” he added.
The tribe provided a lunch, and then an unexpectedly humorous ribbon cutting ceremony took place. Elder Bertha Swan was given the honor of cutting the ribbon. The count was 10 to 1 at which point she was supposed to cut the ribbon. But at number 8, she snipped it, surprising the crowd which then broke into laughter.
Stensgar summed up the occasion: “As a rez boy I’m really proud of what we have and where we are today. Wow, we did it! We have a facility that’s going to administer to us, that we’re going to be proud of and know we’ll get the care we need. People, we’re not done yet. We’re going to keep working and look forward to phase 5.”
Chairman Allan echoed his sentiment: “We’re always looking over that mountain. We’re never status quo. I can’t wait for our next adventure.”