St. Charles Health System plans to open a clinic in La Pine by 2017, doubling the amount of primary care available in southern Deschutes County and competing head-on with a federally qualified health center that’s operated since 2009.

St. Charles, which is already building a combined primary and urgent care clinic on the south side of Bend, hopes to break ground on a $6 million La Pine clinic late this year and open by the summer of 2017.

The exact location in La Pine has not yet been decided. St. Charles estimates the cost at $6 million, and the St. Charles Foundation is working to raise $1.5 million of that. The foundation supports capital projects of the not-for-profit health system, which operates the only hospitals in Central Oregon.

John Weinsheim, CEO of St. Charles Medical Group, said there is a need for immediate care on weekends, and St. Charles was encouraged by the La Pine Rural Fire Protection District to include that service. The fire district covers about 25,000 people living in La Pine and other rural communities of southern Deschutes County and makes many of its medical transport runs all the way to Bend.

New residential growth south of Sunriver is also a factor in St. Charles’ expansion plans. “We were surprised,” Weinsheim said. “Looking at the maps, there are about 15,000 people that live in that area between Sunriver and La Pine, and I think identify more with the La Pine direction than the Bend direction for services.”

St. Charles’ La Pine clinic will start with two or three primary-care doctors, radiology and lab services, plus space for visiting specialists, Weinsheim said.

In primary care, St. Charles will compete with the La Pine Community Health Center, a not-for-profit federally qualified health center, which receives a federal grant to help cover the cost of serving people who either don’t have insurance or whose benefits leave them with high out-of-pocket expenses.

CEO Charla DeHate thinks her clinic, where about 45 percent of patients qualify for Medicaid, suffers from the misconception that it doesn’t serve people with private insurance. “We’re offering right now what St. Charles will be offering in 2017,” she said. “I keep trying to get that message out. We’re right here, ready, right now.”

The health center is open by appointment on Saturdays and on a walk-in basis from 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. during the week.

The health center has become much busier, DeHate said, but it still has plenty of capacity. The health center saw 7,531 people last year, which was a 42-percent increase over 2014.

“You could get an appointment with a primary-care provider in our clinic today,” DeHate said. “We do not have a waiting period for new patients. We have room for 5,000 more patients.”

La Pine has seen as succession of primary care clinics, starting with Bend Memorial Clinic. BMC closed its office in 2002. Then an independent private practice operated out of a different building, which now houses the La Pine Community Health Center. The not-for-profit clinic bought the building from the private practice, DeHate said.

Corinne Martinez, a La Pine resident and a member of the St. Charles Foundation board of directors, is helping raise funds for the new clinic. Efforts have been met with enthusiasm. “It’s exciting,” she said. “Our surrounding communities so need this.”

Martinez, co-owner of Wilderness Garbage and Recycling, said when BMC closed its La Pine office, she and her family followed their doctor to Bend and have continued to travel to Bend for routine care ever since.

Similar to the La Pine Community Health Center, St. Charles expects the new clinic to draw from as far as Fort Rock and Christmas Valley.

An analysis St. Charles conducted two years ago showed many of the people who use St. Charles’ primary care services on the east side of Bend travel from southern Deschutes County, from Deschutes River Woods down to La Pine, Weinsheim said.

So St. Charles decided first to open a primary and urgent care center at Third Street and Badger Road near Wal-Mart. That clinic is due to open in the fall. At the same time, St. Charles was taking a deeper look at La Pine, Weinsheim said.

The La Pine area is drawing many families who either previously lived in Bend, or who are retirees moving from outside the area, Martinez said. She’s seen the evidence in her own business, which saw significant growth in new residential pick-up accounts last year.

As the dominant health care organization in the region, St. Charles has a brand that’s easily recognizable to newcomers, DeHate said. “St. Charles has a reputation. They’re very well-known in the tri-county area. So when you say the name and people already know it, it leads to a comfort level.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7860, kmclaughlin@bendbulletin.com

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