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Rice Care project enters final phase: 4 years of continuous construction

The familiar canopy is gone from the front entrance of the Rice Care Center as construction proceeds on the final phase of a four-year project to renovate the nursing home and create a new short-term stay unit. The old canopy will be replaced by a new and larger canopy and the driveway will be relocated farther out. Tribune photo by Anne Polta

WILLMAR — The familiar canopy at the front entrance to the Rice Care Center is gone and the parking area turned into a field of gravel.

The changes are among the outward signs that the final phase is underway of a project to upgrade the aging long-term care facility and create a new short-stay unit.

By the time construction is completed at the end of this year, four years and $11 million will have been invested in positioning the Rice Care Center as a key contender in the growing market for services for older adults.

“Rice wants to be the leader in the regional health care market,” said Bill Fenske, chief financial officer of Rice Memorial Hospital, which owns the Rice Care Center and the new short-stay unit, Therapy Suites at Rice.

A few years ago, with a nursing home built in the 1960s and outdated for the sweeping changes taking place in long-term care, Rice faced a decision: Do something about the Rice Care Center or exit the long-term care business.

“We had great staff that provided excellent care but we had a bad facility,” Fenske said.

The board of directors reaffirmed that the continuum of care was an important part of the hospital’s mission. “The strategy was that we’re going to invest in the community’s future,” Fenske said.

The project started with the construction of Therapy Suites, completed in 2011 and aimed at an emerging need to provide sub-acute care for people recovering from surgery or a recent hospital stay before returning to their own home.

In the next phase, long-term care beds at the Rice Care Center were renovated from floor to ceiling.

“We tore everything down to the outside walls,” Fenske said.

Mechanical, plumbing and sewer systems were upgraded and double rooms were almost entirely eliminated in favor of private rooms, each with its own bath.

This section of the project was finished earlier this year and all the nursing home beds are now occupied.

The last phase, which started recently, involves gutting the central portion of the nursing home and transforming it into a common area where residents, families and visitors can gather for activities, host special events and more. The kitchen also is undergoing renovation.

Four years of continuous construction have been wearying at times, Fenske said. “The term we use is construction fatigue.”

But the verdict is that it’s worth it.

“It’s finally happening,” said Angel Hall of the Rice Care Center nutrition service. “It’s really good to see it.”

Feedback from clients, visitors and staff has been overwhelmingly positive, Fenske said. “The residents and the families have validated that we’ve done the right thing… Satisfaction comes from a lot of aspects — services, actual care, quality and just the aesthetics, the look and feel. It has a positive effect on people’s attitudes and that in turn helps the healing process.”

Within months after Therapy Suites opened, demand for short-stay beds was so strong that the facility had to turn people away, prompting construction this past year of seven additional beds to meet the need. A second therapy gym also was added to accommodate the demand, not only for short-stay clients but for long-term care residents and outpatients as well.

The transformation of the nursing home was especially dramatic. Long, institutional corridors were redesigned into compact, home-like “neighborhoods” with their own dining area and outside entrance. Last summer the staff also began a transition into a neighborhood model of care aimed at involving residents with choices in everything from when they eat breakfast to how they spend their day.

At the completion of the project, the entire campus will have 78 skilled-care beds and 30 short-stay beds.

The Rice Care Center, which has a revenue stream separate from that of Rice Hospital, had a deficit during some of the months of construction when beds had to be taken offline. Overall, however, the project is expected to increase the occupancy rate and strengthen the facility’s financial position.

Rice leaders spent months developing a vision for what they wanted the facility to be, and “the reality has exceeded the ideas and the thoughts,” Fenske said. “The community interest has exceeded expectations as well.”

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at http://healthbeat.areavoices.com. Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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