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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Medics Mushroom Valley Hospital And Medical Center Anchors Emerging Medical District

The roof of the two-story building east of Valley Hospital and Medical Center is newly shingled. Inside, plumbers, electricians and others are working on offices where a cardiology group, a pulmonary specialist, a family practice physician and other medical practices and support services will locate.

It’s an uncertain time for medicine. Yet in the construction-happy Spokane Valley, the medical district is growing, too.

Dr. Rita Snow, a Valley internist who’s leading the partnership for the project on Vercler Road, says the building should open in November. She cites more than one reason for leaving one of the largest Valley medical addresses, the Medicus Medical Professional Center, for her own building.

“First, I figure I have another 20 or 30 years to work and I don’t want to pay rent all that time,” said Snow, 39. “Second, there’s a phenomenal amount of patients out here (in the Valley) who don’t get their care out here.

“And there’s still a doctor shortage. I’d like to bring in two or three new doctors.”

That quickly, Snow has touched on two or three points that are helping shape medical care in the Valley:

Overhead costs for doctors are running high and revenue is tighter, as today’s managed care imposes more paperwork and slimmer billings.

Many members of the medical community, including Valley Hospital and Medical Center, are working to serve Valley patients so well that they’ll stay here, not go downtown, except for a handful of specialty needs.

New doctors will almost certainly continue to come to the Valley. Perhaps they’ll be primary-care physicians, perhaps specialists, who will keep their South Hill main offices and establish satellite offices here. Perhaps new outside medical groups will come, giving patients more choices, and exerting competitive pressure on existing surgeons.

As Valley Hospital watches the population in the region grow, it also sees its inpatient numbers flagging.

“It’s really sort of schizophrenic,” said Mike Liepman, chief executive officer of Valley Hospital.

That drop has nothing to do with the hospital’s quality. To the contrary, Valley Hospital received such extraordinarily high review last year, that the state review board opted to skip its review this year. The downward trend in inpatient use is a national one, driven by changes in medical technology.

“Our challenge is to define what kind of medical growth we can expect and where,” Liepman.

“The hospital is in the process of bringing in a consultant … to see what Valley hospital’s niche should be,” said Chuck Stocker, a member of the hospital’s board of trustees. Strategic planning could help the hospital determine what kind of medical development should occur on the seven open acres on the hospital’s south flank.

Within a quarter mile radius around Valley Hospital and Medical Center, at least five medical complexes bulge with dozens of doctors. Nursing homes, retirement centers and assisted living centers parade the length of Mission Avenue across from the hospital.

Valley Hospital itself owns the vacant seven-acre parcel south of its facility. To its west, a pocket of rundown housing is sprouting with for-sale signs. One pair of Realtors has angled their sign so that doctors glancing from the windows of the hospital can’t miss it.

Brighton Court Assisted Living Center, just east of the hospital, has finished one expansion. Five acres to its south is tagged for another expansion, said Dr. David Wesche, a surgeon and partner in Brighton Court. New independent-living cottages will add to the options for senior citizens at Brighton Court.

Doctors have incentives to own their facilities these days.

“With so many changes in the way physicians are paid, it has them scrambling for other areas of revenue,” said Dr. Frank Galizia, a Valley optometrist. “I think we’re seeing the start of something new.”

The Valley has picked up an extra medical asset in recent weeks: the newly opened Pheasant Run Best Western, where the very first customer was a medical patient.”It was a woman and her husband who came to have their baby. They came as two and left as three,” said Al Garnett, Pheasant Run manager. The motel has arranged with Valley Hospital to offer a special rate for the families of some low-income or fixed-income patients, Garnett said.

Offering complete health care so that Valley residents do not need to drive downtown has been one of the goals of Empire Health Services, which owns Valley Hospital, said Empire spokeswoman Priscilla Gilkey. “I have heard so many people say ‘I don’t want to drive downtown, I don’t want to get messed up in those big parking garages,”’ Gilkey said. “I do think there’s a real effort to serve the people of the Valley.”

All this sounds like good news for Lester Smith, who has lived just west of the hospital for 30 years. He has a tired-looking sign in front of his home, advertising his lot on Maxwell for sale at $12 a square foot. A few doors down, a sign offers $8 a square foot.

“I remember when my sons used to play in the vacant lot where the hospital is now,” Smith said. Several of the tiny homes in the neighborhood were built as World War II housing, originally located in north Spokane, Smith said. He hopes the entire neighborhood can be consolidated and sold at once, for a larger medical project. “This is not a residential neighborhood,” Smith said. “All around us is commercial. We are an island.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos (1 color)

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