Hundreds of families across Northwest Arkansas have been helped by Little Rock-based healthcare organization Arkansas Children’s. In the past, that has meant uprooting lives and traveling three hours away to get the care needed for their sick kids.
Jami Dennis, CEO of Bentonville supplier consulting firm VendorMasters, said her 8-year-old son was referred to Little Rock in 2004 for specialty care he couldn’t get locally. At the time, she was working for Wal-Mart Stores, recently separated from her husband and had another child in diapers at home.
“The long drives, gas money and expense of staying in Little Rock [were] a real hardship for us. But you will do anything for your kids,” Dennis said. “Like so many others we were sent to Little Rock because there were no pediatric specialists here to handle serious cases. This new hospital will finally change that. It will be a God-send to families with sick kids.”
Arkansas Children’s Northwest has received strong support from the local community, evidenced by $63 million raised thus far in the “Care Close to Home” capital campaign. While contributions are still $7 million short of the goal, hospital officials remain confident the total will be raised.
Hospital construction continues near the Don Tyson Parkway interchange west of Interstate 49 in Springdale, running about a month behind schedule and slightly over budget, but management said they are pushing through hurdles to get the facility open in early 2018.
When Marcy Doderer, president and CEO of Arkansas Children’s, joined the organization in mid-2013, she and the board of directors sought to do a better job of providing care to the 720,000 kids around the state.
Doderer said they developed a strategic plan that would blanket the state with specialty care. She said talks about expanding to Northwest Arkansas had taken place as early as 2007. The question was always about finding the right timing. During the 2008 recession, talks of expansion fizzled out. Then in 2015, as the planning process was underway, she said the viability of a second hospital seemed doable.
“When we looked at where the children lived, it made sense to focus on Northwest Arkansas as a place to plant a physical flag. When looking at the growing population and 11 surrounding counties there are about 200,000 kids — enough density to support a local hospital,” Doderer said. “We will also continue to look at the how we reach kids around the rest of the state. It’s not likely to be another hospital, but perhaps it will be mobile or tele-health clinics and outpatient services.”
In August 2015, Arkansas Children’s Foundation said it was making a $427 million investment in Northwest Arkansas with a new hospital in Springdale. That figure included construction and operating costs for the first five years. Doderer said that total is still in play, though the construction costs have run about $2 million over the original estimate of $165 million, and the timeline for completion has been extended.
The 233,613-square-foot hospital is slated to open after the first of the year, though an official date has not yet been announced. Doderer said operations at the Arkansas Children’s clinic in Lowell will transfer to Springdale in January and opening before the hospital, which is nearing completion.
Trisha Montague was hired last fall by Arkansas Children’s to oversee construction, then run the new facility as its chief administrator. She’s previously served as executive lead on a $150 million renovation project at Children’s Hospital of San Antonio. Montague also has three decades of experience as a pediatric nurse and hospital leadership. She and Doderer worked together in San Antonio, and Montague also spent four years at Arkansas Children’s from 1997 to 2001 working as nurse and rising to vice president of patient care.
Montague said there have been plenty of opportunities to make creative adjustments to the design, given she’s not getting the completed building turned over to her at one time. State licensure and other regulatory hoops cannot be completed until the entire building is finished. Montague reiterated, though, the team is committed to opening the specialty hospital as promised sometime early in 2018.
Montague said roughly 80% of the 275 staff jobs have been filled. Hiring will continue into December. Because the building isn’t completed, those professionals requiring training have been receiving it in Little Rock. Doderer said having the new hires train in Little Rock has worked out well because some have never worked in a children’s hospital. It’s also helped introduce them to the Arkansas Children’s culture.
Montague said staff hirings have gone smoothly with several recruits coming from nearby Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri. Dr. Robert Williams, chief medical officer, was recruited by Arkansas Children’s while he was working at Children’s Hospital in Oklahoma City. He relocated to the Fayetteville area in June and said about 80% of the specialty physicians have also been hired. He said there will be 30 physicians covering various specialties and finding these doctors can be challenging.
“There are plenty of general doctors, but finding pediatric specialists is more difficult. We are making really good progress,” Williams said.
Williams also spent some time at Arkansas Children’s early in his career and was excited to come back. He said not all children’s hospitals are created equal. He particularly likes the unified support the healthcare organization has from the entire state, and said that makes this a special job. He agreed training recruits in Little Rock has proved valuable because it is helping build relationships between the two sister hospitals.
HOSPITAL SIZE, SUCCESS
When the hospital opens next year it will have 24 inpatient beds, 30 emergency department and urgent care exam rooms, 30 clinic exam rooms, five operating rooms and diagnostic services. The 37-acre campus will also include walking trails, gardens and a helipad and refueling station.
Doderer said a lot of research went into deciding how many inpatient rooms to build. They looked at where the children in the region were being served today and decided early on not to duplicate any of the services already provided in the region. She said the entire hospital was designed around bringing specialty care to augment the services already being received locally.
Montague said the strategic planning conducted in 2015 mapped out a 25-year plan to grow the local footprint as needed. The 37-acre tract donated by Gary George and family allows for expansion room when the time is right. Doderer said she can’t foresee the need for a research building on site, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be ongoing trial research and other clinical initiatives being done locally.
Williams said there are already ongoing talks with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, private practice physicians and other healthcare providers looking for ways to study the local Marshallese population and their particular health needs. Montague said Arkansas Children’s Northwest will have its own identity but will also benefit from the support of the larger Arkansas Children’s network — financially and otherwise.
Doderer said the Springdale hospital will be a success when the first sick child and its family don’t have to uproot their lives and travel three hours to get the care they need in central Arkansas. She said financially, the local hospital will have the foundation support until it can stand on its own. In the first six months of operation, she estimates payroll support of $16.4 million will be needed. Roughly 65% of children receiving care at Arkansas Children’s have some form of Medicaid. Doderer expects that will be same for the Northwest Arkansas facility.
Montague said getting the doors open and delivering dedicated care to Northwest Arkansas will be success to her. In the long term, she said meeting the promise of high quality pediatric care in a financially sustainable manner is the target.