After four years and $38 million worth of construction, Offutt Air Force Base’s Ehrling Bergquist Medical Clinic has hopped into the 21st century.
The makeover of the 47-year-old hospital was part of a shift in military and civilian medicine away from inpatient hospital stays to outpatient care.
There’s a lot more to this face-lift than the new white-and-turquoise paint scheme and the colorful vertical signs in each department.
What’s out: Inpatient hospital beds, cramped waiting rooms, the whole maternity ward.
What’s in: The grand staircase, way bigger physical therapy and mental health areas, and a mammography waiting area with a semblance of privacy.
“It’s a more modern, classier place to work,” said Col. Stephen Mounts, commander of the Air Force’s 55th Medical Group, which operates the clinic. “The staff is a lot happier.”
So are the patients, it appears.
“The layout makes a lot more sense,” said Airman Zachary Ellis, 22, who’s been visiting the clinic for 2˝ years. “It looks more updated.”
About $12 million in funds from Congress’ controversial $787 billion stimulus bill — Democrats for it, Republicans opposed — kick-started the project in 2009. But it had been in the planning stages for several years.
“We were shovel-ready,” said Don Schlichting, then the hospital’s civilian facility manager and now a consultant. “We had a project that was ready to go.”
Ehrling Bergquist opened in 1966 as a 180-bed hospital to serve active-duty service members from Offutt Air Force Base and their families. An attached medical office building, called the South Tower, opened in 1977.
Over the years Ehrling Bergquist’s patient census dwindled, and hospital rooms were converted for other uses. By the mid-2000s, only 45 beds remained, mostly delivery rooms in the maternity ward. With the rise of single-night stays for new mothers, even those beds remained empty most of the time.
“The older hospitals were built when a lot of care was delivered in a hospital setting, which isn’t the case anymore,” said Susan Hosek, a senior economist with the RAND Corp. consulting group.
The military has been upgrading many of its older facilities to accommodate the new trends in military medicine. Stimulus money was used to upgrade hospitals at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., and Langley Air Force Base, Va., and build a new hospital at Camp Pendleton, Calif., among other projects.
“It’s been a consistent trend throughout the Air Force, moving from inpatient facilities with 50 beds, 25 beds, to more outpatient treatment,” Mounts said.
Ehrling Bergquist is less than two miles from the gleaming Bellevue Medical Center, just three years old. Experts on military medicine, though, say it still is critical for the military to maintain its own separate medical system instead of outsourcing care to civilian clinics.
Military doctors, for example, are adept at watching for the long-term effects of flying helicopters or being submerged in a submarine, said Lt. Col. Frank Capoccia Jr., commander of Offutt’s 55th Medical Support Squadron.
“You’ve got very specialized physiological issues that civilian medicine is not set up for,” he said.
Also, military medical teams need to practice their professions so they are prepared to go to war zones when they’re needed.
“When the military deploys, they come along,” Hosek said. “It’s a core requirement.”
Ehrling Bergquist’s July 31 ribbon-cutting ceremony marked the end of four years of upheaval, with various medical departments moving in and out of some 7,500 square feet of temporary trailers. During the four years of construction, the inside of the old hospital was completely rebuilt.
“This was a floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall gut,” Mounts said.
The first half of the project involved the reconstruction of 47,000 square feet of the building. Offices were moved, the maternity ward and all other inpatient rooms eliminated and more space given to high-demand specialty clinics such as physical therapy and mental health. The general surgery, orthopedics and podiatry clinics were rebuilt.
In addition, asbestos and other hazardous materials were removed, and water and drainage lines were upgraded. Electricians installed new lighting, along with high-efficiency heating and air-conditioning.
“It was truly down to the concrete,” Schlichting said. “The only structures that stayed the same were the elevator shafts and the stairwells.”
The project’s second phase covered 35,000 square feet and featured renovation of the radiology, public health, audiology, dermatology, ear-nose-throat, and eye clinic in the North Tower. New sprinklers and an emergency notification system were added in the South Tower.
As luck would have it, Ehrling Bergquist was scheduled for a major inspection and reaccreditation during the peak of construction. Mounts said the clinic received an “outstanding” rating in spite of the mess. It was also selected as the Air Force’s “Clinic of the Year” for 2012.
“It’s the equivalent of having a wedding at your house while it’s being remodeled,” Mounts said.
The last piece of construction is a $6.1 million face-lift to the outside of the building. Energy-efficient, blast-resistant windows were installed, the roof replaced and brickwork upgraded. That work will wrap up this month.
No one will be happier than Capt. Mike Bryant, whose life has been intertwined with the clinic’s. He was born in Ehrling Bergquist’s maternity ward in September 1966, soon after the hospital opened. He joined the Air Force as a maintenance electrician two decades later, was assigned to Offutt, and saw his son delivered there in the early 1990s.
Now Bryant works in the physical therapy department, which moved from the basement upstairs — into the former maternity ward where he and his son entered the world.
“When I came back here even in 1991, it looked aged,” Bryant recalled. “Now this clinic ranks up there with anyplace you’ve ever seen.”
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