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TCHC plans to open Verndale clinic

Tri-County Health Care plans to open a clinic at the corner of Farwell Street and First Avenue Southeast in downtown Verndale in the building that currently houses Lake Country Insurance (left). The insurance agency intends to build a new office in Verndale.

Tri-County Health Care announced on Thursday it plans to open a family medicine clinic in downtown Verndale by the end of the year.

The not-for-profit health care corporation will turn the 2,200 square foot Lake Country Insurance building on Farwell Street into an outpatient medical clinic for a total cost of $450,000. It will be TCHC's sixth clinic location. The organization already operates facilities in Wadena, Sebeka, Bertha, Henning and Ottertail.

"It's very exciting," said Verndale Mayor Raye Ludovissie. "It's going to be really great for the city."

When he was first elected to the council in 2010, Ludovissie proposed approaching TCHC to see if it was interested in entering the Verndale market, but "we kind of laughed off" the idea at the time, thinking it would never happen, he said. Then, late last year, when Public Works Manager Matt Uselman raised the issue again, leaders agreed to at least make a phone call.

It turns out TCHC was interested - as long as it could find the right building.

Although it wasn't in the organization's strategic plan, the Verndale clinic fits with TCHC's mission of "improving the health of the communities we serve," said Judy White, vice president of clinic operations.

"We go where we're invited," she said.

White said that in addition to serving Verndale's growing student population, the clinic will allow the city's large number of elderly residents to get health care without the six mile drive to Wadena - or the 13 mile trek to Staples, home of Lakewood Health System.

"We knew there were unmet needs in that community and we knew we could meet them very well," White said.

Like TCHC's other family medicine clinics, the Verndale location will be open Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. It will be staffed by a full-time physicians assistant, while a couple of physicians will visit each week. X-ray and lab services will be offered.

Throughout the entire health-care industry, White said, the focus is shifting from inpatient to outpatient medical settings.

"Things that were being handled in an acute setting are now being handled in a clinical setting," she said.

Thus, TCHC is beefing up its clinic staff, an effort that includes the recent hire of Jose Alba as clinic operations director. Alba, a Staples native, serves as the project manager for the Verndale clinic.

He couldn't provide a specific opening date, but he said, "we have an aggressive timeline. We want to open as soon as possible."

With a mix of city and economic development authority money, the Verndale EDA will buy the insurance building. Then - in a lease purchase agreement - it will sell it to TCHC over a five-year period.

Lake Country Insurance plans to build a new office elsewhere in town, something leaders see as another plus for the city economy.

The new clinic won't just provide health care for Verndale, it will bring a couple of jobs (receptionist, nurse, X-ray/lab technician and physicians assistant) too, Alba said.

Ludovissie said the clinic will also make Verndale more of a full-service community and therefore a more attractive place to move a family or start a business.

"It's a good step in the right direction for development," he said.

One of Alba's goals, he said, is to make TCHC a visible, engaged presence throughout town. "We want to become a part of the Verndale community."

On Monday night, it appeared that word of the new clinic had yet to spread throughout the city of about 600.

As he walked his girlfriend's dog through downtown, resident Aaron Garland, 31, said he hadn't heard about the plans, but thinks a TCHC clinic "might be a good idea" despite Verndale's close proximity to Wadena.

"You do have an older community here," Garland said, adding, "Any time you upgrade the town at all, that's a good thing."