New larger clinics planned for Savoonga, Gambell

By Rachel D'Oro, Associated Press | Posted - Aug. 23, 2015 at 8:51 a.m.

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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — Two of Alaska's most remote villages are getting new, larger clinics in an effort to improve health care services for residents of the island communities.

The Norton Sound Health Corp. is funding construction of the clinics at Savoonga and Gambell on Saint Lawrence Island, with $1.4 million of the $10 million construction cost in hand. The nonprofit tribal health organization has applied for several grants toward raising the remaining $8.6 million.

Foundation work is being done this summer in the Yup'ik Eskimo communities, with construction slated to begin next summer.

Gambell resident June Walunga, who represents the community of 713 on the health corporation board, has long pushed for a mini-hospital on Saint Lawrence Island to serve the two communities. Residents in those areas must fly to Nome or Anchorage for serious ailments that can't be handled by the physician assistants and health aides in the villages. Air travel is not always possible, with bad weather on the often fog-shrouded island regularly halting air travel, she said.

But Walunga welcomes the next best option — larger clinics for each community that can accommodate more services, which are now spread around the village in available space.

"We're really short on space now," she said.

Each of the planned clinics will be 5,200 square feet, which more than doubles the sizes of the existing clinics, which were built for smaller populations. Gambell had a population of about 370 when its clinic was built in 1970. Savoonga's clinic was built in 1997, when the population was about 620, compared with the current population of nearly 720.

Savoonga has the smaller of the two existing clinics, and space is so tight there that health aides are making house calls, NSHC president Angie Gorn said.

The increased space will double the number of examination rooms from 3 to 6, allow the inclusion of village counselors and will include dedicated space for visiting medical professionals and a dental area used by a dental health aid therapist who works out of Savoonga, Gorn said. The clinics will get new equipment as well.

"We're just trying to raise the bar with quality," Gorn said, "and provide a nice environment for health care to happen."

Savoonga's board representative Preston Rookok likes the fact that the village's behavioral health services program will be moved to the new clinic. It will mean that people with substance abuse problems can more discreetly seek help because they will be going to a facility that offers many services instead of one.

"For me, that'll be great for the young people," Rookok said.

The Norton Sound Health Corp. serves 20 tribes in 15 villages, as well as Nome.


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