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Innovative Plan To Keep Yosemite Clinic Open

YOSEMITE — The medical clinic in Yosemite National Park was never your average clinic. For instance, there was that time bears made themselves at home in the lunch room.

In January, the clinic will pass another noteworthy milestone: It will become the first medical clinic in a national park to be operated by the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps.

It’s an unusual solution to a problem that threatened to leave the storied tourist draw without a clinic.

Tenet — the Dallas-based investor-owned hospital company that’s owned the clinic since 1995 — has been losing money on the facility every year. Doctors Medical Center, a Tenet-owned hospital in Modesto, has been running the clinic as a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week outpatient center. It is leaving when its contract expires Dec. 31. No new takers stepped forward.

“There’s lots of patients, but not a lot of revenue,” said Yosemite spokesperson Scott Gediman, adding, “The bottom line was we were looking for a way to keep a clinic open when it couldn’t make money.”

Most national parks don’t have their own clinics because they are near cities. But no clinic in Yosemite would mean rangers, tourists and workers in the country’s most visited park would be more than an hour’s drive away from medical care.  

Housed in a stone and timber lodge in the heart of Yosemite Village, the clinic, which opened in 1929, is a family practice and outdoor adventure emergency department rolled into one. The clinic has served about 7,000 patients annually.

“We see everything here,” Sean Pence, the clinic manager, said. He added, “We get colds and flus, abrasions, heart attacks. We’re orthopedic central — lots of ankles and wrist injuries from falls. We see snowboarders with head injuries, climbers with frostbite. We just had an amazing rescue of a 10-year-old girl caught in a rock slide — slabs of rock threw her around like a rag doll. We stabilized her. She’s a local kid. She’s fine. What if the clinic hadn’t have been here?”

Gediman said the thought of what could happen if Yosemite didn’t have 24-hour medical care was what drove the creativity behind the park service partnering with U.S. Public Health Service. The hope is to continue to offer services 24 hours a day, just as the clinic has for 35 years.

Loss of Access Worried Workers, Residents

In October, as the clinic’s fate remained precarious, local climbers hung a sign reading “Save Our Clinic ” high up on El Capitan, the iconic 3,000-foot vertical rock formation at the north end of Yosemite Valley. Yosemite families dropped by the clinic to say goodbye to the current staff and talk about how worried they were the clinic would close altogether.

“Even most of the people who work here were more upset about the thought of the clinic closing than at losing their jobs,” Pence said.

When the idea of National Public Health running the clinic was first broached, Captain Chuck Higgins, director of the National Park Service’s office of public health, was momentarily stunned.

“It’s something completely innovative. At first you kind of scratch your head and think ‘Well, I don’t know …’ then ‘Well, yes, I suppose …’ Then you think, ‘Wow, this hasn’t been done before, but if we think it through really well, it could work.'”

There has been a lot to think through.

“It’s incredibly complicated,” said Gediman. “Think of what it takes to run a clinic, everything from pharmaceuticals to biomedical waste to the front desk and taking out the garbage. Plus two government agencies working together — one of them military.”

The two agencies — Public Health Service and the National Park Service — will man the clinic together. The health service is providing doctors and nurses, and the park service is providing building maintenance and support staff.

Corps doctors and nurses usually serve on American Indian reservations or remote areas where doctors are hard to find (think Dr. Joel Fleischman of the T.V. Show “Northern Exposure”). The doctors and nurses who will work in Yosemite’s clinic will wear uniforms and have military titles.

Yosemite Assignment Sparks Interest

The unexpected corps assignment of Yosemite National Park has already drawn interest.

“When they put out the assignment they had two dozen people express interest the first day. Think about it, you get to live in Yosemite,” said Gediman.

The timing of the take-over is tricky, said Higgins. There may be a few weeks with a break in services until the Corps can bring in the minimum staff to keep the clinic open: a physician and a clinic manager, who will also be a nurse. The hope is to have the clinic fully staffed and running by the busy summer season.

Gediman said it was too early to say whether the idea might spread to other wilderness parks such as Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon.

First, they have to see how it plays out in Yosemite.

“We don’t know how it will go. We don’t know exactly how things will work. We just knew we had to keep the clinic open,” he said.

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