SEARHC land transfer advances in congressional committees

SEARHC CEO Charles Clement testifies before the House Natural Resources Committee in Washington D.C. Referring to the age of Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital, he said “Something’s got to happen in Sitka.” (Youtube screen capture)

A bill transferring over 19 acres of federal land in Sitka to the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium — or SEARHC — has passed preliminary committees in both the US House and Senate.

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House Resolution 1901 was introduced by Congressman Don Young in April. A nearly-identical version of the bill, S. 825, was introduced into the US Senate by Lisa Murkowski on the same day.

The bill transfers lands currently owned by the Indian Health Service and gives them to SEARHC at no cost. SEARHC already occupies much of the land anyway, and has been maintaining it for over two decades, according to CEO Chuck Clement.

Clement testified in Washington DC earlier this month (6-7-17) before the House subcommittee on Indian, Insular, and Native Affairs. He told House members that SEARHC needed the land to replace Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital.

“Our tertiary care hospital is located in Sitka, Alaska. It’s the only hospital we operate. It was built by the Department of War approximately 70 years ago,” Clement said. “As you can imagine, over the course of 70 years in Southeast Alaska, it’s been very difficult on the facility. And there’s a great need to update, upgrade, and replace the facility. And given the current circumstances within the Indian Health Service, with regard to replacement facilities in Indian Country, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to work collaboratively with the IHS to find the best and most prudent way to go ahead and replace that facility.”

The bill transfers the land under a so-called “warranty deed,” which guarantees SEARHC full title, and protects the organization against claims by other possible owners. A quitclaim deed would only transfer title, with no guarantees.

Congressman Don Young asked Clement — on behalf of the IHS which could not send staff to the hearing — why a warranty deed was so critical.

“Something has to happen in Sitka, there has to be some level of development,” Clement said. “And in order to engage a financial partner, whether it’s the Alaska Bond Bank, whether it’s a private financial institution, whether it’s open bond markets, we are going to need to take loans on that land, and quitclaim deeds will just not cover that level of financial committment that’s going to be required.”

“I thank you for that answer.” Young responded. “We have transferred five other pieces of property under warranty deed. I was curious why they were saying it had ‘limited aspects.’ We will pass the bill with “warranty deed” with the help of the chairman and the ranking member, because you just want to build a new hospital. I’ve been in this hospital — by the way, SEARHC does a great job, but the buildings are 70 years old.”

H.R. 1901 passed the House subcommittee. A week later, S. 825 was heard in the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and also passed. Both bills will likely be heard in at least one other committee in the House and Senate, before being combined into a single bill.

As part of its expansion plans, SEARHC has proposed buying out Sitka Community Hospital and converting it into a long-term care facility. All acute care in Sitka would move to Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital, and then its replacement if one is built.