New cancer service will benefit patients, economy

When asked what they would do with the chance to start a new line of cancer treatment services in the Central Peninsula area, officials with the new Peninsula Radiation Oncology in Soldotna had a quick response.

Why mess with a good recipe?

“We want to offer the same level of care there that we do here,” said Anchorage-based radiation oncologist Jamie Blom. “Some people would consider that a satellite for us. It is not. A satellite connotates an inferior product.

“We want to provide the absolute same state-of-the-art care in Soldotna that we do here in Anchorage, which is why we have committed to having physicians there every day.”

Blom, along with Anchorage-based radiation oncologists Dr. John Halligan and Clare Bertucio plan to practice at the new cancer treatment facility, which is the first of its kind the area has ever seen. While the physicians say they hope to keep steady a high quality of care, the community can expect to see a blooming of economic benefits from not only from the facility’s construction and operation, but also the additional hospital services generated and the benefit money spent on things related to cancer treatment staying in the community, they said.

The 6,200-square foot, $6.5 million building is being built on Central Peninsula Hospital’s dime, who will then lease the space to Halligan and company. RBS Evolution of Alaska will then employ a total of four new positions to help run the services provided, said RBS CEO Dan Moore.

The three physicians will be in the area one week at a time and will rotate duties.

“It’ll be the same physician group always because we have to have a physician there all the time,” Halligan said. “We could have possibly gotten something called a rural exemption ... but we wanted to bring the same level of care there that we have here. So we have made a commitment that we are always going to have a physician down there for our treatment.”

Moore said he expects the facility to start treating patients in mid-July. The three physicians may begin consulting with patients in early July and all staff will be on site in June.

The center’s linear accelerator — a piece of equipment needed to perform radiation oncology – is valued at $5.5 million, will be “top of the line” and will take at least a month to calibrate after it is placed in the building in April.

“Whereas most people would think that we would bring in a refurbished or second-hand model, we are bringing in brand new, top-of-the-line equipment,” Moore said.

Halligan said there are about 120 new cancer cases a year on the Kenai Peninsula. The center expects to serve about 60 to 100 patients per year, which is between 6 and 12 per day at any given time. That figure is lower than average cancer service rates in other areas of the state, namely Anchorage (100 between both facilities) Fairbanks (12 to 20) and the Matanuska Susitna area (12 to 18), Halligan said.

“It is not going to be a high-number operation like we have at Providence or they have across town at Regional because our populations are different,” he said. “But we think it will be financially viable down there at those numbers between 8 and 12 patients per day.”

Moore said the center will have a small staff to start with — a front desk/office manager position, two therapists initially and when RBS is able to open a second center in Juneau — which should happen within a year — they will bring in a fourth person to Soldotna to do a majority of the radiation planning, Moore said.

“I know that for every job that comes in it creates a value for the community,” he said. “... With those four people and their higher-than-average salaries I think you are going to see a significant impact to the community.”

CPH Chief Executive Officer Rick Davis said the new radiation oncology facility would generate additional benefits for the hospital as a whole and the area’s medical staff.

“The hospital will receive economic benefit from rent on the building for one,” he said “We will get additional ancillary services in our radiology service line, we’ll get additional labs, I think our infusion center will get more volume and aside from direct benefit like those, I think we will see more patients stay home or stay on the Peninsula for other hospital services — surgeries, things like that — if they are getting their radiation oncology here.”

Blom agreed adding he predicts additional patient volume for physical therapy and rehabilitation services.

“Overall there is quite a substantial increase in what are typically higher dollar services to the hospital,” he said.

Halligan estimated that those services staying in the area could mean more efficiencies and lower costs all together.

“An effect on the people on an economic basis is not having to travel,” Halligan said. “... There are those people who literally drive back and forth every day to Anchorage and there are people we have had fly back and forth from Soldotna, Homer or Kenai.”

When patients leave for Anchorage or Seattle for treatment the central Peninsula area is losing the dollars they would be spending here on hotels, prescriptions, groceries and other cost of living items, Blom said.

“And then you are losing their productivity from their workplace as well, so a lot of our patients will be able to continue work while they are on treatment,” Blom said.

Davis added that once a patient leaves the community for any service it then becomes easier to get additional services outside of the community, as well.

Moore said studies estimate that a cancer center’s presence in an area means an additional $400,000 per year to the local economy.

Overall, Davis said the new service line was exciting all around — for the community’s health and for its economy.

“It has been a dream for several of our board members for many years and I just think it is a real win for our community to be able to provide that level of care here at home,” he said. “It is just such a hardship for a cancer patient when they are in that state to have to leave their community. It is pretty intensive treatment to have to have done outside of your support area or your family and support.”

 

Brian Smith can be reached at brian.smith@peninsulaclarion.com.

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