'We just continue to grow and grow and grow'Fred LeRoy Health and Wellness Center set for big move in Nebraska
By Kevin Abourezk
@Kevin_Abourezk OMAHA, Nebraska -- A folding table, a couple dozen folding chairs and a non-functioning phone. Those items constituted all the office equipment inside the first Ponca Tribe service center in Omaha when it opened 24 years ago near 69th and Dodge streets. The one-room space, which had an entire wall covered in glass, opened just three years after the tribe had been restored. The service center was one of the first efforts by the newly re-recognized tribe to serve its people and would later become a full-service clinic serving the tribe’s members and members of other tribes. “We started at that point, and where we’re at today is amazing,” said Candy Schott, medical director of the Fred LeRoy Health and Wellness Center and one of the first employees of the clinic. Today, the clinic calls a three-story, 18,000-square-foot building south of downtown Omaha home. The clinic not only provides medical services to its patients, who have come from 150 different tribes, but also provides pharmaceutical, behavioral health, dental, community health and midwife services. The clinic also boasts a public health nursing program and purchase/referred care services to Ponca tribal members who need health services not offered at the clinic. But the 63-year-old building is beginning to show its age and limitations for providing space to an ever expanding tribal health care operation.
A narrow hallway provides the only avenue for patients and staff to reach the clinic’s eight exam rooms. Visitors must stand to the side and wait their turn to walk from one end to the other. The only suitable conference room where the clinic’s staff can meet doesn’t have enough chairs and some attendees have to sit on stationary bikes while listening to presentations. Without enough offices for clinic staff, administrators have had to renovate closets, locker rooms and bathrooms to make room. The building’s only elevator is barely large enough to accommodate a single person in a wheelchair. And with just 30 parking stalls outside, patients often have to park on residential streets. But tribal leaders welcome the problems a thriving clinic, which sees nearly 20 new patients a month. “We just continue to grow and grow and grow,” Schott said. About 13 years ago, the clinic’s skyrocketing growth motivated tribal leaders to begin searching for new digs for the clinic. Their efforts led them to a shiny, much newer building some six miles to the west of the existing clinic. The tribe is poised to finalize its purchase of the $6 million former headquarters and call center for InfoGroup by the end of January.
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But a subsequent ruling by the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s decision and gave the commission another chance to consider the matter. The appellate court ruled the NIGC should have taken a purported agreement between the Ponca Tribe and the state of Iowa – in which the tribe promised not to build a casino on its Carter Lake property – into account. However, the court ruled, the agreement wasn’t valid and couldn’t be used to stop the tribe from gaming. The attorney generals for Iowa and Nebraska haven’t decided whether to appeal the latest NIGC decision. “No decision in the foreseeable future,” said Geoff Greenwood, spokesman for Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller, this week. However, the city of Council Bluffs in Iowa is considering its legal options, said Mayor Matt Walsh. Walsh said city leaders from Council Bluffs did not object to the Ponca Tribe’s purchase of its Carter Lake land after receiving what it believed were promises from the tribe about how it would use the land. “After receiving written assurances from the tribe’s legal council that the location would be used as a health clinic and wouldn’t be used for gaming purposes, the city acquiesced and didn’t object with the land purchase,” he said. He said he disagrees with the tribe’s contention that its legal council at the time of the land purchase lacked the proper authority to make commitments related to the tribe’s future land use. Larry Wright Jr., chairman of the Ponca Tribe, said the tribe did initially plan to build a clinic on its 5-acre Carter Lake parcel of trust land. However, the tribe decided the site wasn’t suitable for a clinic and purchased the building that now houses the Fred LeRoy Health and Wellness Center instead. Today, the tribe runs its smoke shop, Smoke Signals, on its Carter Lake property. Wright said the tribe is hopeful the casino will be a major revenue source for the clinic and for other tribal programs. “It means everything to us when we look at that revenue and how it affects the services that we provide for our people,” he said. At the time the tribe proposed building a casino in Carter Lake, plans included 50 table games and 2,000 slot machines, as well as a 150-room hotel. Wright said the tribe is still considering exactly what the gaming operation will look like in Carter Lake. He said the tribe actually owns about 11 acres in the town and plans to use the 5 acres of that land that is in trust for the casino. Much of the rest of the land would be used for parking and other ancillary needs. “We will have as much gaming stuff in 5 acres as we possibly can,” he said.
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Voegele, the clinic’s CEO, said the new clinic site will allow the tribe to expand its health offerings and generate increased revenue through those new services. Indeed, he said, Indian Health Service officials already have committed to increasing the rate the agency pays the clinic to cover the costs of providing health care to its Native clientele once the clinic opens in its new location. Currently, IHS pays the clinic at a rate of $1,141 per patient per year -- far lower than the average expenditure of $3,688 per patient, according to the agency's figures. Even that's lower than the per capita national health expenditure of $9,990, according to the National Center for Health Statistics “They expect us, with this money, to provide a very comprehensive set of services,” Voegele said. “With that amount of money that they give us, we have to stretch that as best as we can.” The new clinic site will allow the Ponca Tribe to justify increased funding for its patients as the tribe will now be able to serve more people with increased health programs, Voegele said. He said about 78,000 square feet of the new building will be dedicated to health services and he’s planning to introduce new health programs in the expanded space, including radiology, additional physical therapy services, optical, podiatry and urgent care. The new site also will have a drop-in childcare center. The tribe also hopes to open up its clinic to non-Natives, though it still must prove to IHS that it can do so without impeding the services it provides to its Native patients, Voegele said. As a tribally-run clinic – rather than one operated by IHS – the Ponca clinic has a much different atmosphere than other clinics on reservations, Wright said. Much of the clinic’s staff have decades of experience and longevity within the tribe, he said. And many of them are Ponca tribal members themselves and truly believe in the clinic’s mission to improve the health of the tribe’s members and other Native people, he said. Many of its staff volunteer to provide programs, including a Friday morning physical therapy clinic, in order to better serve the clinic’s clients, Wright said. “Our people work here,” he said. “This is theirs. This is where their families get taken care of, their moms, their dads, their kids, grandkids. Their relatives are working here.” The clinic also offers services specific to Native Americans, including sweat lodge ceremonies, that other health care providers in the Omaha metro area simply don’t, he said. “There’s going to be nothing like this for the Native community in the metro area,” he said. “As we build this one-stop shop for our tribal citizens, it really becomes that opportunity for all Natives here.” As he prepared to check out of the clinic recently, Alan Lehl – a 22-year-old Oglala Lakota man from Lincoln – said he enjoyed his first visit to the clinic and planned to come back for physical therapy. “It was really quick,” he said. “Everyone that I encountered was really friendly.”