Work on health care facility in Old Town Kenai begins this summer

Jaylene Peterson-Nyren, executive director of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, said an expansion to the Dena'ina Wellness Center center has been a goal for more than 20 years.


"We have just really outgrown that strip mall space," Peterson-Nyren said.

The project started moving full speed ahead when the facility was awarded a joint-venture grant from the Indian Health Service about a year and a half ago. That means the service will pay many of the facility's costs, funding operational, maintenance and staffing needs for 20 years.

"We are very excited," Peterson-Nyren said.

The 52,000 square foot facility will be near the Tyotkas Elder Center with parking on Mission Avenue and access on Highland. The clinic will take more than one summer of construction.

"It will be an aggressive construction schedule," Peterson-Nyren said.

Currently, the Dena'ina clinic serves about 3,500 Alaska native and American Indian customers, as well as an additional population through its mental health arm of about 800 people.

"It's an amazing amount of people to be serving," Peterson-Nyren said.

The clinic provides a variety of services, operating state behavioral health programs for the state of Alaska in Kenai, and providing Alaska natives and American Indians, offering wellness, general medical care and even dental services. The new clinic will also provide some care that the current facility doesn't, like physical therapy.

The new building will also enable the clinic to pursue its patient-centric model of care, Peterson-Nyren said.

"We are co-locating our behavioral health, our primary care, our wellness programs and our dental into this one facility," she said.

The design of the space is meant to facilitate collaboration and communication that puts the patient at the core of his or her own care, Peterson-Nyren said.

"The design of the space is for high-efficiency," Peterson-Nyren said. "It is designed to be very patient-focused."

The Dena'ina clinic adapted the new model of care over the last two years. The change was driven, in part, by a goal to enable patients to see their doctor on the same day. Each patient is seen by a care team that includes various practitioners, with one team seeing about 1,100 to 1,200 patients.

"It takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of communication, team effort. It's a drastic change from the way we were operating," Peterson-Nyren said. She credited much of the success to the center's staff members.

The project has received support from a variety of groups.

Peterson-Nyren said the state, the local health community, the borough, Central Peninsula General Hospital, local health center, the city of Kenai, and others have endorsed the project.

At a city budget work session last fall, Kenai councilman Bob Molloy said he was glad to see the governor's budget include funding for the project.

Peterson-Nyren said she was grateful of local legislators' work as well.

"Praise to Tom Wagoner," she said. "He and his staff have really helped us through the whole process for state funding. That has been crucial to moving forward."

The state funding amounts to about $15 million, she said. The total cost is anticipated to be about $36 million.

Peterson-Nyren said the project is needed not just for the Dena'ina customers, but for Old Town Kenai. Kenai's City Manager, Rick Koch, has said he thinks the facility will help reinvigorate that portion of town.
Peterson-Nyren agreed.

"Businesses in Old Town can expect a big influx of business," she said.

The building will have about 100 employees, in addition to the customers going in and out.

"We are going to hire 50 new positions," she said.

Those new positions range from administrative employees, like the director of operations currently being hired, to clinic support, wellness and facility support positions. Those will offer competitive pay, she said.

"It's always been my position that your human resource is your greatest resource," she said.

Most of the employees won't be hired until the construction ends.

Before then, the tribe is working with a management team - Rise Alaska - and architects both locally and based in Anchorage.

Peterson-Nyren said they are working with Rise Alaska on the architecture contract and an RFP for building the facility. That firm is also helping ensure that all the HIS requirements are met. The service has certain specifications for space and other aspects of the facility.

"It's very detailed," Peterson-Nyren said. "We have met those requirements through out design."

The design is more than just functional, she said.

"The design is meant to be inviting," she said. "We want people to want to come and participate in wellness programs."

Wellness will be a feature of the clinic, with a walking trail throughout the facility's grounds and other efforts to engage people in healthy living before they get sick, Peterson-Nyren said.