Cherokee Nation Health System Adds W.W. Hastings Hospital
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith smiles at receiving an honorary key to W.W. Hastings Indian Hospital from Indian Health Service Acting Area Director Hickory Starr, as Cherokee Nation Tribal Council Speaker Meredith Frailey looks on.
TAHLEQUAH, OK — Nearly 350 people listened attentively to the historic ceremony transferring W.W. Hastings Hospital operations from Indian Health Service (IHS) to the award-winning Cherokee Nation Health Services system. A sunny day greeted those who witnessed the hour-long ceremony commemorating the good work of the hospital employees and the commitment of the Cherokee Nation to continue excellent health care for Native Americans.
“We have learned lessons by watching other tribes operate hospitals in their jurisdictions, and now we have the opportunity to create the best health care system in northeastern Oklahoma,” said Chad Smith, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. “The Cherokee Nation and the staff of Hastings have one thing in common – to provide the best possible health care for Indian people in this area.”
The standing-room only crowd included officials from the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, IHS, Seminole Nation, state and private health care facilities, as well as many hospital and tribal employees.
The Cherokee Nation Color Guard ceremoniously raised the Cherokee Nation flag at the hospital’s entrance and then performed an official Change of Command ceremony at the beginning of the program, signifying the operation of the hospital by the Nation.
IHS Acting Area Director Hickory Starr, a Cherokee citizen and native of Sequoyah County, spoke on behalf of IHS as the transfer of power was made official. Starr said the staff at W.W. Hastings is “second to none,” and said that the hospital provided good care in northeastern Oklahoma.
“I’ve worked all across Indian Country and during my time here we have achieved many goals,” Starr said. “Is this (transfer of operations) a good thing? It is. Can the tribe do as well as we (IHS) have done? Yes.”
Last year, the hospital recorded approximately 244,000 patient visits in a space meant to accommodate 60,000 patient visits, resulting in nearly four-times the number of patient visits per year than was planned for the existing space. Even with the high number of patients seen at Hastings, there was no federal plan in place to expand the space at the hospital, resulting in long waiting times for patients with appointments and for those in need of emergency services, as well as patients in need of preventative health services and exams. Recognizing the need for additional resources for patient care, Cherokee Nation began exploring ways to help.
In July, the Cherokee Nation unveiled plans for a 45-acre health care complex adjacent to the hospital. The vision for the health care complex includes a 200,000 square-foot health care facility, a new surgery center, and other buildings including facilities for doctors, medical storage, and health programs and services.
“This is a step in building a comprehensive health care system for all Native Americans in this service area,” said Melissa Gower, Group Leader for Cherokee Nation Health Services.
“Indian people are a proud people who have endured many hardships,” said Meredith Frailey, Speaker of the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council. “Hastings is more than a hospital. It’s a personal story. It offers us hope, which gives us energy to endure.”
The Muscogee (Creek) Nation voted unanimously in support of the transfer of operations and showed their strong support at the ceremony as well. A bus full of Muscogee Nation officials and tribal citizens were in attendance at the event, including Chief A.D. Ellis, who noted that the hospital provides services to more than 11,000 Creeks in the area.
“The Cherokee Nation set a goal for other tribes in the health care field,” Ellis said. “We have always worked with and support Cherokee Nation, and we will continue to support Cherokee Nation.”
Mitchell Thornbrugh, Acting Administrative Officer for W.W. Hastings Hospital, noted that the Cherokee Nation has much needed resources and expertise that can be brought to the hospital.
“I think it (the transfer of operations) brings tremendous value to the level of care we can provide at W.W. Hastings,” Thornbrugh said. It is anticipated that assumption of operations by the Cherokee Nation will greatly increase the amount of funding available for health care services through the amounts transferred from IHS as well as additional funding and grants that would be available to the tribe, including additional funding that is currently not available to IHS.
Established in 1935 through the efforts of U.S. Congressman W.W. Hastings, a Cherokee citizen, the hospital opened at its present site in 1984. The original site is now the Northeastern State University’s School of Optometry. The W. W. Hastings Indian Hospital is an accredited (JCAHO), 58-bed hospital in Tahlequah, and employs approximately 600 staff.