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Browning hospital truly a joint effort

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BROWNING, Mont. - A $10 million expansion project at the Indian Health Service hospital here will allow medical providers to offer a broader slate of services.

The project, started last December, will add 27,000 square feet of new space to the complex and 22,400 square feet of renovated space, says Tribal Revenue Director Emorie Bird, who is managing the contract. Completion is expected by the end of June 2001.

Additions will include a new dental clinic, business offices, an urgent care center, an ambulance garage and a lobby and waiting areas. A separate $300,000 landing area for emergency helicopters is in the works, as well as a $120,000 storage facility, Bird says. The existing optometry office, pharmacy, women's health center, diabetic clinic, medical records area and the ear, nose and throat clinic will each get a facelift.

The work is being done by the Browning-based S&H Construction, an Indian-owned firm that employs a workforce that's 90 percent Native American.

"It's the first time an Indian got an opportunity to build a facility of this magnitude for the tribe," Bird says.

Bird notes that all of the project's funding was allocated to the tribe through a Public Law 638 contract and related federal legislation. Instead of dribbling the award out over time, as is often the case, the $10 million was invested by the tribe in private investment accounts. Interest from the money can then be claimed by the tribe, she says.

"They accepted our proposal the first time and basically gave the Blackfeet what we wanted," she says of IHS. "We put in a good proposal. We really did go above and beyond the minimum standards."

Bird adds it's unusual for a federal agency and an Indian tribe to work so well together. "It's really a team effort," she says. "It's a real big step for us because the tribe and IHS have come together for a common goal - a new facility. It's really good to see."

Bird also says a lot of credit should go to Tribal Chairman Bill Old Chief, who helped push the deal through.

"He's defined sovereignty in a different way than in the past," she explains. "He's willing to take more risks."

Reese Fisher, the Blackfeet Reservation's IHS service unit director, says the original hospital was built in 1937. Further construction boosted the number of available beds to 34 in 1960, and a major expansion in 1986 resulted in a new surgery suite, an additional ward, lab and X-ray space, an area for physical therapy and room for outpatient visits, among other amenities.

But Fisher says outpatient visits that numbered 22,000 in 1991 had jumped to 43,000 annual visits by the end of last year. Emergency room visits, which numbered 13,000 in 1991, were pegged at 17,000 in 1999. The expansion work, he says, will alleviate overcrowding and give providers more room to work.

Fisher says about 220 people are currently employed at the facility, including 14 doctors, a surgeon, two optometrists and five dentists. The agency's annual budget for the reservation is about $27 million, which includes federal support for the Tribal Health Department, emergency services, the chemical dependency program and community health representatives.

Along with backing the improvement of facilities, the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council also recently approved the construction of a new recreation area just west of tribal headquarters.

Old Chief says the site will soon have an array of basketball courts, as well as a running track that can be used by tribal employees and other community members alike. Over the long run, he says, the project will help tribal members improve their health, thus cutting down the need for medical care.