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New model for rural health care?

Avera Chief Administrative Officer David Flicek speaks to a crowd of about 100 people Wednesday night at the fire hall in Kennebec. Residents, along with several Avera representatives, gathered to celebrate the town's new clinic, which replaces one closed by Sanford Health in September 2012. (Chris Mueller/Republic) 1 / 2
A sign placed outside a new clinic Wednesday in Kennebec welcomes Avera Medical Group to the small town. Avera’s new clinic replaces one closed by Sanford Health in September 2012. (Chris Mueller/Republic) 2 / 2

KENNEBEC — A sign outside Kennebec’s new clinic said it all: “Welcome.”

After more than a year without a local health care option, Kennebec residents are welcoming the arrival of a new clinic and a new provider. A crowd of about 100 people gathered Wednesday at the small town’s fire hall, along with several representatives of Avera Medical Group, which will operate the clinic.

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The new clinic replaces the one the small town lost Sept. 15, 2012, when Sanford Health — citing a lack of medical providers — left town and took its building with it. Herb Sundall is a member of a committee that helped raise $107,000 to pay for the new clinic building.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m bragging, but I’m not sure every town our size could pull this off,” Sundall said. “I’m pretty proud of the community for being able to do so.”

Kennebec, population 240, is 30 miles west of Chamberlain on Interstate 90. The new clinic is located at 120 S. Main St., on the site of the former clinic. The building arrived on the back of a truck in late September and is expected to be up and running by early November.

The challenge of raising enough money to pay for a new clinic in such a small town was a daunting one at first, said Rod Bowar, another committee member.

“There was some hesitance when we started,” Bowar said. “But, as every day went by, we got more and more confident we would find a way to do this.”

At a meeting earlier this year, a group of fewer than 30 residents pledged a combined $65,000 for the new clinic. Both Sundall and Bowar said they were awestruck by the willingness of the community to contribute to the project.

Without a clinic for the past year, Kennebec residents have been forced to travel either to Presho, which is about 10 miles away, or to Chamberlain, which is about 30 miles away, for health care.

“I was raised here with a clinic in town, and my kids were raised with a clinic in town,” Bowar said. “I didn’t know any other way until last year.”

In late February, nearly six months after Sanford closed its clinic in Kennebec, Avera agreed to sign a five-year lease to operate a clinic in the city-owned building.

Avera Chief Administrative Officer David Flicek said the organization is proud of the partnership it has formed with Kennebec, as it is of all the partnerships with other small towns where Avera operates.

“This is our home turf,” he said. “So, we’re happy.”

The willingness of Kennebec’s residents to work with Avera was essential to the success of the project, Flicek said.

“They have to be part of the process and be engaged, and that’s what attracted us here,” he said.

The clinic, which is 24 feet by 52 feet, has two exam rooms, a waiting room and reception area, space for a laboratory and office space for providers. A full-time employee will be at the clinic five days a week and a physician’s assistant from Chamberlain will be at the clinic for two half-days each week, according to Flicek.

Sanford’s decision to leave had little, if anything, to do with Avera’s decision to open a clinic in Kennebec, Flicek said.

“That’s their issue, not ours,” he said.

Kennebec’s new clinic could prove to be a model for the future of rural health care, Flicek added.

“We’re going to watch this closely,” he said. “We probably have other communities like this that could use these services.”