Petersburg Medical Center’s drive-through COVID testing area in 2020 (Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)

A top official for the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium outlined to the Petersburg assembly Monday how that regional health care provider could be part of new hospital facility in this community. It was a surprise for the leader of the Petersburg Medical Center, which had just received backing from the assembly to pursue their own project, at least the first phase of it.

SEARHC chief medical officer Dr. Elliot Bruhl explained to the assembly that the health care provider has partnered with other Southeast communities, namely Wrangell and Sitka, and he explained how that could work in Petersburg.

“SEARHC acquires the practice and commits to employ all the existing employees to operate the practice,” Bruhl explained. “The community provides a suitable space for a future facility and SEARHC constructs that facility and operates it.”

Bruhl outlined what that new facility could look like and compared it to the newly completed SEARHC hospital in Wrangell. He also tried to address concerns that Petersburg would lose input and local decision making if that provider took over health care in this community.

“We’re not a big for profit health care company from Seattle or Virginia or even from Anchorage. We know our communities and we care about our staff,” he said.

SEARHC is a non-profit Alaska Native run health consortium formed in 1975. It has expanded to provide health care to Natives and non-Natives in 27 communities. This year it started up behavioral health service and dental care in Petersburg.

Bruhl spoke at the request of mayor Mark Jensen, who later explained that invitation to the rest of the assembly.

“As an assembly member, I hadn’t had a presentation delivered to me, or the assembly hasn’t to my knowledge from SEARHC and I don’t think the community has been able to listen to the opportunities available to them from the SEARHC organization,” Jensen said.

The assembly earlier this year ranked the first phase of a new hospital building as one of the community’s top priorities for federal funding. Last month it also passed a resolution backing the Petersburg Medical Center’s phased approach to pursuing a new hospital facility. Jensen was the only no vote on that resolution.

Petersburg Medical Center CEO Phil Hofstetter said he was a little surprised by the SEARHC presentation and asked for notification in the future. He said he was glad to hear of opportunities for partnering with SEARHC but also sounded a note of caution.

“We just have to make sure when we move forward that it’s something we can live with, not just one, two years, five years, fifteen years,” Hofstetter said. “PMC has been providing services for 100 years in this community. So having the ability to keep moving forward and maintain the operations is near and dear to anyone that’s in this community.”

One area where SEARHC and PMC did partner on this year was in the roll out of COVID vaccine. The regional provider sent additional doses to Petersburg for the hospital to administer, boosting the local supply. But as far as overall direction of health care in the community, SEARHC has met with the PMC board and staff in the past and the board has not pursued that option.

Assembly member Dave Kensinger wanted to assure Hofstetter and the PMC staff that local officials backed the resolution passed last month.

“I just want to allay the fears that I’ve heard from some of your staff that we’re going in a different direction,” Kensinger said. “I think I can say with confidence that we’re comfortable with the direction we’re going right now and we want to work collaboratively with you. We want to stay informed. That said I don’t see any issue at all with exploring different options for the future, particularly if things don’t work out. We never want to take anything off the table.”

Other assembly members pointed out that the Petersburg borough charter gives the local hospital board the authority to operate the local facility and decisions on operations should be left up to that board.