BENSON — Swift and Lac qui Parle counties joined Chippewa County in offering funding to make it possible to provide hospital care at a central facility for COVID-19 patients from the three counties.

During separate emergency meetings on Tuesday, the commissioners in Swift and Lac qui Parle counties unanimously agreed to provide their portion of financial support to help operate a portion of the Prairie Correctional Facility in Appleton as the Tri-County COVID Medical Center.

The Chippewa County Board of Commissioners agreed Monday to make available up to $425,977 as a no-interest loan to the venture. Swift County approved up to $333,794 and Lac qui Parle County up to $240,228 at their meetings on Tuesday. The amounts are based on the populations of the counties and the goal of making $1 million in funding available.

The health care centers in Montevideo, Dawson, Madison, Appleton and Benson are at work readying the vacant facility for its new use. CoreCivic, owner of the private prison, offered its use at no cost and is offering support staff to maintain it. The 1,600-bed prison has been shuttered since 2010 but has been kept at the ready for use.

The goal is to have it ready for its first patients on Monday, if needed.

The expectation is that all of the costs for operating the Tri-County COVID Medical Center will be reimbursed to its operators.

Dan Enderson, co-CEO of Swift County Health Services in Benson, encouraged the Swift County Commissioners to look at the financial support as a “line of credit.” The five health care facilities expect to be able to bill patients and be reimbursed through insurance, or Medicaid and Medicare, for all of the expenses, according to Enderson, co-CEO Melissa McGinty-Thompson, and Lori Andreas, CEO of Appleton Health Services.

The health centers also expect there will be state funding to provide care to COVID-19 patients not covered by private insurance or other sources.

State Sen. Andrew Lang, R-Olivia, and State Rep. Tim Miller, R-Prinsburg, told the Swift County Commissioners that the expectation is that “state funds will follow the patients.” They said they believe state funds will be allocated to ensure that health centers are reimbursed.

The two legislators said there are other counties also looking at joint operations. What's happening here is not unique, Lang said.

The five health centers are also applying for funding from the $50 million in COVID-19 funds the state recently approved.

The Swift County Commissioners said they support the three-county venture, but during their discussions at the meeting emphasized two challenges they face: Finding the funds and dealing with the uncertainty of how much need will exist for care.

Commissioner Eric Rundningen said, “$333,000 is a lot of money for this little county.”

He and the other Swift County Commissioners agreed in their motion to provide the funding but to do so by providing funds as needed, with $50,000 made available at the start.

Swift County Administrator Kelsey Baker said the county would have to use general fund reserves. She and the commissioners noted that this is a tight, cash-flow time frame for counties. They also expressed their uncertainty about what share of property tax revenues will be received May 15 due to the economic downturn.

The other uncertainty troubling the commissioners is the inability to know how many patients will need to be cared for in the three counties. The facility is being set up with expectations that it could be caring for as many as 559 patients by its 55th day of operation.

That is based on a projection that 70 percent of residents in the three counties will be infected by the virus during the pandemic, and that 5 percent of them will need hospital care.

Liz Auch, director of Countryside Public Health, said she believes that the infection rate could be closer to 40 percent in the rural counties. But even if the rate is held at 40 percent, Auch said the center is very much needed. The five health centers have 56 hospital beds available among them, which is far short of what will be needed, she said.

CCM Health in Montevideo is the only facility among the five with the respiratory therapy and other intensive care services that will be needed. The Montevideo hospital also offers obstetrics care, and it would face a dilemma of caring for newborns and mothers and COVID-19 patients in the same facility, Auch told the commissioners.

The public health director applauded the five health centers for their foresight to develop the center. She said staffing it could prove to be more difficult than expected. There will be health care workers unwilling to put themselves at risk by caring exclusively for coronavirus patients, and there will be health care workers ill with the disease themselves and quarantined as a result, she said.

McGinty-Thompson said the health care centers have been seeing major decreases in normal services due to the pandemic. There are many staff members who can be re-assigned to coronavirus care, she said.

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