MOUNTAIN HOME -- The Mountain Home Air Force Base is undergoing some drastic changes at its hospital.
In a couple of weeks, inpatient medical care will no longer be provided and the hospital will officially become an outpatient clinic. Some are asking why, and wondering how this change will impact military families.
Overall, medical leaders at the base say it's a win-win situation: they feel the change benefits the Air Force and the local community. Now St. Luke's Elmore Medical Center is prepping their staff and rooms, getting ready to take on more patients.
The decision was made about 17 years ago, when the Air Force analyzed the care provided at the Mountain Home Air Force Base (MHAFB) and realized it was appropriate to transition to an outpatient clinic. It was contingent upon the local hospital in Elmore County becoming civilian accredited by the Joint Commission, which happened a couple years ago for the St. Luke's Elmore Medical Center.
"Really in the last year, as we tried to push it through, once we had a safe option for our patients to go to here locally, then we wanted to do it as quickly as possible," Medical Support Squadron Commander for the 366th Medical Group and hospital senior administrator, Lt. Col. Jason Buckner, told KTVB.
Come August 1, all inpatient care and the ability to admit patients at the base hospital will be no longer. Some of it has already gone away, as changes are being made in stages: medical leaders say labor and delivery has been removed, with surgical services ending in a couple days.
"This is the summer transition transition cycle for a lot of military families, so we have had to cease a little early the surgical capabilities as well as labor and delivery," Lt. Col. Buckner added. "We will have to transition just under a hundred of our patients that use us for internal medicine downtown."
The internal medicine position will also not be filled, ending internal medicine services as well. Once surgery, obstetrics and internal medicine are no longer available and the ability to admit patients to the hospital is gone, the facility will officially transition to an outpatient clinic.
The low volume of patients and lack of complex cases at the MHAFB are the key factors.
"In Idaho, the population just doesn't support the kind of workload a surgical team would really need to practice for war," Lt. Col. Buckner added. "This is going to allow them to go to larger facilities with larger volume, more complex cases, so they'll be ready, they'll be better medics for it."
Buckner says as those medics keep their skills sharp in other bases, they'll be more prepared to save lives when they go down range to serve our country in our nation's wars.
Plus, military leaders say this change will save the Air Force money and puts money back into Idaho's economy.
"We're putting about $2 million of business back into the Idaho health care community and cutting about $7 million of federal costs," Lt. Col. Buckner said. "So Idaho wins... and the federal government wins to a net savings of about $5 million a year."
Buckner says about 60-65 positions at the hospital are going away this summer and fall; some will be transitioned within the hospital, others will go to local hospitals, and most will be transferred to other bases.
"There is a good number of folks who will have to find new assignments and we've been working closely with the Air Force personnel center to make sure they get assignments as quickly as possible," Lt. Col. Buckner said. "There will be a number of positions that go away, but many of them are moving anyway."
And under TRICARE Prime insurance for active duty service members, there is still no cost to go down the road to St. Luke's Elmore and other in-network hospitals such as Saint Alphonsus and St. Luke's in Boise.
For the roughly 2,000 retirees enrolled at the base that will no longer have access to inpatient care, Buckner says the cost is small.
"The total cost burden is about $3,000 - so about $1.50 a year on each of those retirees. So not extensive," Buckner said.
For minor procedures, such as a colonoscopy for instance, Buckner says those retirees will have to pay a co-payment downtown that they wouldn't have had to pay otherwise.
"So they'll have to pay a small part, where they wouldn't have had to pay for it here."
Meanwhile, St. Luke's Elmore in Mountain Home has been preparing for this for the last couple of years.
"I think over the past couple years it's just been an ongoing conversation about what they can and should provide and what's appropriate and how we can supplement and also support the community," St. Luke's Elmore Medical Center Administrator, Michael Blauer, told KTVB.
The transition occurred faster than St. Luke's anticipated, but Blauer doesn't feel it impacted their level of preparedness or readiness.
"As we've ramped up our plans and worked to prepare for an increase in patients and providing more services, we've shared plans with the Air Force base leadership here locally and I think they felt a comfort level with what we were doing," Blauer added.
St. Luke's Elmore brought on another physician and surgeon recently, nurses and staff have undergone more training, rooms have been remodeled, and they're upping their resources and equipment.
"We've had to up the care in many ways. Our nursing staff is going through a tremendous building period to get prepared for this," St. Luke's Elmore Medical Center Chief of Staff, Dr. Timothy Brininger, told KTVB. "The big impact is making sure we have enough bed space when we have somebody come here because it's a small hospital and it is possible to get overwhelmed if we get too many that come all at once."
"It will be different, it will be a growth. I think time will tell exactly how quickly it will change and what that growth pattern will look like," Blauer added. "We're looking at plans down the road how can we continue to accommodate and grow within the facility."
To be very clear: outpatient care on the base will stay put. 24-7 urgent care, primary care, the pharmacy, dental, radiology, and the laboratory will continue to be provided - which is the bulk of what the hospital does.
"If anyone has idea hospital is closing that's not true," Buckner said. "Very minor impact to the patients. Mostly it's families that are expecting babies."
"It's still a big deal. People rely a lot on these levels of services. A lot of trust is being placed in us in our community to take care of them," Blauer added.
For much more information on the Military Treatment Facility transition, you can head to this article on the MHAFB website.