MARSHALL - Avera Marshall Regional Medical Center doesn't have an answer to southwest Minnesota's high cancer-related mortality rate, but on Thursday made an announcement that it hopes will go a long way to addressing it.
Speaking to a room full of community leaders, Avera personnel and at least two cancer survivors, Avera President and CEO Mary Maertens announced the center's plans for a $12.5 million-$13.5 million Avera Cancer Institute that will provide radiation therapy, chemotherapy, surgery, pharmacy, dietitian consultation, home medical equipment, on-site CT and Magnetic Resonance Imaging.
"Our vision in providing high quality health care to our region is not something that we approach lightly," said Maertens, who called the decision one of the most monumental in her 25 years with Avera because of the number of people it will affect. "The cancer mortality rates in southwest Minnesota are higher than almost every other part of the state and we want to do something about it. The need is there, and our time has come to respond."
Photo by Per Peterson
Avera Marshall Regional Medical Center President and CEO Mary Maertens speaks about Avera’s proposed cancer center at a news conference Thursday. The center comes with a price tag of $12.5 million-$13.5 million, $7 million of which was set aside after the sale of the hospital from the city of Marshall to the Avera Health System.
Plans call for groundbreaking next summer, followed by a 12-month building cycle. Maertens said the first cancer patient would be treated in Marshall on or about July 10, 2014.
Jim Fuhrmann, chairman of the Avera Marshall governing board, said the decision to move forward with a cancer institute was a local decision and will allow the facility to build on the quality of care provided to area residents. He called the institute a significant addition to the health care industry in southwest Minnesota.
"Our board has been working many, many years to get to this point," said Fuhrmann. "Three years ago this hospital moved from a municipal facility to a private hospital, and since then, we've realized the benefits as a result. Our board continues to make decisions locally; this decision was a local decision."
The center will essentially encompass Avera's brand-new wing that was recently completed along Bruce Street. Apart from the addition of a second floor to that new addition, a number of square feet will be added onto the campus for a structure that will house a device called a linear accelerator - the machine that delivers the radiation therapy to cancer patients. That building will run parallel to Bruce Street.
Dr. Donna Hartfiel said the linear accelerator sends a beam of particles to a defined area to damage rapidly-divided cells, or the cancer. The concrete walls of the special building that will house the large device will be anywhere from 4 to 6 feet thick.
"The issue is the beam," she said. "The radiation goes out as a beam of very, very fast particles and, God willing, will kill the rapidly-dividing cells."
Avera's funding plan includes a $7 million (plus interest) gift from the city previously set aside after the sale of the medical center from the city of Marshall to the Avera health system. The $7 million was earmarked for oncology program development when the change of ownership occurred three years ago.
"One of the reasons why the city went through the change of ownership for the hospital was to be able to provide these services that are needed for the region that simply were not possible to do with a municipally-owned hospital," Marshall Mayor Bob Byrnes said. "That is part of why we went through the change of ownership."
Maertens said Avera has plans to work with the community to attain the remaining $5.5 million-$6.5 million.
"Our capital campaign will kick off formally early in 2013; we want to secure our lead gifts first," said Marty Seifert, director of the Avera Foundation. "The board has adopted naming rights for various rooms. We're looking for community members to participate in helping with donations and looking at a time commitment for up to five years to be able to do that."
Avera Marshall's primary identified target market is Lyon and Lincoln counties; its secondary market stretches from the border with South Dakota, east to Sanborn, and roughly as far north as Dawson, down to Windom. Maertens said Avera anticipates treating between 14 to 17 cancer patients per day by the new center's third year.
Once at full force, Avera Chief Financial Officer Sharon Williams said the hospital expects to treat 80 percent of patients who reside in Lyon and Lincoln counties and 30 to 40 percent of patients in the secondary market.
Southwest Minnesota has the unenviable distinction of leading the state in cancer mortality rates. According to the American Cancer Society statistics from 1975-2007, the region has the highest cervical cancer incidence rate and highest female breast cancer mortality rate in the state. Southwest Minnesota is also in a virtual tie with the northeast section of the state in colon and rectum cancer mortality rates and ranks near the top in prostate cancer mortality rates.
"We're tied for No. 1 in colon/rectal, we're also No. 1 for breast cancer - the only thing they're surmising is that we are one of the regional centers that doesn't have (treatment) so people have to travel a long way," Seifert said. "But why we're this high, we don't know. Is it genetic, is it environmental, is it because people have to drive so far, is it a combination of those? We don't know. What we know is we need to do something about it."
The clear-cut benefit of being home to a cancer institute, Avera personnel said Thursday, is being able to treat area cancer patients locally. With extensive cancer treatment available in Marshall, patients will no longer have to drive hundreds of miles to area cities on a daily or weekly basis.
SueAnn Moyars of Tracy is a three-year breast cancer survivor and told Thursday's audience how important it will be to have this kind of treatment available in Marshall.
"No longer will people have to decide if treatment is worth the travel," she said. "Having a cancer center in Marshall means people can save on travel costs. People won't have to choose treatment over going to family events."
Hartfiel said most cancer diagnoses are made at the community hospital level and that Avera's plan will allow patients to stay close to home for treatment and care in a state-of-the-art facility.
"This is extremely important to the people who populate this region," said Hartfiel, who is also a governing board member at Avera. "It is very important for the cancer patient to be treated close to home - it's important to them, to their family, to their neighbor, to their co-worker. The closer the care is to home, the better their chances of survival and improving their quality of life."
Avera Marshall will partner with its tertiary facility, the Avera Cancer Institute in Sioux Falls, S.D., when it comes to hiring new personnel, Maertens said. Recruitment for a radiation oncologist will begin in January; that person will be a lead member of the treatment team in Marshall.
In addition, radiation therapists will be hired, and at least one of them will be cross-trained into dosimetry, a specialized service required for delivering the correct dose of radiation treatment. Avera will also bring on a physicist from the Sioux Falls location.