Flathead County’s Expanding Health Care Industry

New study shows health care is the largest industry sector in Flathead County and continues to grow

By Dillon Tabish
Construction at Kalispell Regional Healthcare on Sept. 1, 2016. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Further increasing its presence in the local and regional landscapes, Flathead County’s health care sector is undergoing a dramatic expansion with an estimated $147 million of investment in new and upgraded medical facilities over a six-year span.

The health care industry is the leading employer in Flathead County, accounting for roughly 6,300 jobs, or 16 percent of the total employment. The industry funds roughly $313 million in annual payroll to local workers, 21 percent of the county’s total payroll.

The valley’s robust medical profile, which has experienced sizeable growth in the last decade, is the subject of a new report published by the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.

The report, authored by BBER associate director Bryce Ward, details the vast impacts of the county’s health care sector, including economic and social benefits.

Ward said the presence of quality health care providers stimulates the local economy while also attracting families who want to live in a community with good hospitals and medical services.

“I’d rather live close to health care than further away,” he said last week at the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce luncheon, which focused on the new BBER report.

Flathead County’s health care sector has grown more rapidly than elsewhere in the state, Ward said.

An estimated 20 percent of patients who seek medical care in Flathead County come from outside the area, according to BBER.

“The report shows clearly that as the scope and caliber of Flathead Valley’s health care services have increased over the decades, the sector has contributed significantly to the local economy,” said Joe Unterreiner, president of the Kalispell Chamber. “Through communitywide strategic planning and support we see a promising future in the continued growth of the industry for expanded health care services, related entrepreneurial businesses and services, and good-paying jobs.”

As the local leader driving much of the expansion, Kalispell Regional Healthcare is continuing to add to its campus off Sunnyview Lane. This summer the hospital broke ground on its new $42 million pediatric center that will dramatically expand intensive care and other medical services for women and children across Montana. The 190,000-square-foot addition, which will be located east of the main entrance to Kalispell Regional Medical Center, will be built over the next two years with the goal of opening in the spring of 2018. The new facility will form the largest centralized source of pediatric care in the state. The hospital is already developing its staff and services and expects to open its new pediatric intensive care unit next month.

“This specialty care can be provided to very sick children, children from all over Montana. That is a huge change in the medical landscape,” said said Dr. Federico Seifarth, a pediatric surgeon who recently joined KRH from the Cleveland Clinic, one of the nation’s best hospitals.

The hospital is also developing a new digestive health unit that will be housed in a 25,000-square-foot building with 16 exam rooms and three operating rooms.

Also, the hospital is finishing the $14 million expansion and renovation of the emergency services department, which will grow from 8,000-square-feet to more than 37,000-square-feet.

“This was only possible due to help from the community,” Seifarth said.

“These numbers very impressively show the growth and the health of this organization, and I’m very proud to be part of that.”

Since 1999, Kalispell Regional has increased its staffing from 928 full-time employees to 2,725; the hospital also has 605 part-time employees. The total salaries, wages and benefits paid equal more than $229 million, according to the hospital.

Nearby the hospital campus, Immanuel Lutheran Communities is similarly growing its senior care facilities and services. The first phase of the five-phase campus expansion began in spring with new assisted-living care and increasing the rooms at The Retreat, a wing built about three years ago with 16 rooms designed for short-stay patients needing physical, occupational, and speech therapies.

The Villas at Buffalo Hill, which is already half filled up, will include 35 new independent living residences, 24 assisted living apartment residences for individuals with memory loss, a pool, fitness center, coffee bar and lounge. The total cost for the entire project has been estimated at $45 million.

Jason Cronk, CEO of Immanuel Lutheran Communities, said the aging Baby Boomer generation is creating a significant demand for new types of housing facilities and other services.

“We’re expecting quite a huge jump for senior housing and senior needs,” Cronk said.

Roughly 16 percent of Flathead County is 65 or older, and by 2030, nearly a quarter of the county population is expected to be older than 65.

“There is a need that we’re touching and we’re excited bout this,” Cronk said.

Each phase is expected to take about a year, Cronk said, and will be completed in succession. Other expansions include The Terraces Commons, with a coffee bar and lounge and covered entrance attached to the existing Terraces, expected to be finished in 2017.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.