No solution for packed U clinics

Plans for a new building to relieve the crowded clinic were put on hold.

Conor Shine

On a typical weekday, the Phillips-Wangensteen Building is packed with thousands of patients waiting to see doctors in one of the dozens of University of Minnesota clinics housed there.

The building, constructed in 1974, now serves five times more people than it was originally designed to.

“WeâÄôre overbooked,” said Sarah Carlson, a medical assistant in the Specialty Infusion and Procedure Center. “But every day, the phone starts ringing and people need to get added.”

Because her department often deals with time-sensitive treatments, Carlson said she finds herself squeezing in appointments even when thereâÄôs no room for it on the schedule.

“We have to get creative,” she said, which sometimes means overbooking nurses or pushing less urgent appointments back.

In desperate need of more space, the University has been working with the University of Minnesota Physicians and Fairview Health Services on a partnership to build a five-story, $250 million outpatient ambulatory care center in Stadium Village.

The 405,000-square-foot building would house a surgery center and clinical space for a range of specialties, from neurology to dentistry to podiatry. Its proposed location on Block 12 âÄî a University-owned parking lot at the intersection of southeast Essex and Ontario streets âÄî is easily accessible from Interstate 94.

The plans were shelved in 2008 due to the recession, but the project got another chance last fall when the University applied for a $100 million federal grant included in President Barack ObamaâÄôs health care reform bill.

But the grant went to Ohio State University, and another chunk of funding that large probably wonâÄôt come along again âÄî leaving the University of Minnesota without an obvious way of financing the project, University Federal Government Relations Director Channing Riggs said.

“We sort of think this was a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” Riggs said.

Although plans for the ambulatory care center are back on the shelf, officials still grapple with space issues at the current clinics.

Some services have been moved off campus, and satellite clinics have been set up around the city to help deal with the patient load, University of Minnesota Physicians CEO Bobbi Daniels said.

The transition of pediatric units to the new Amplatz ChildrenâÄôs Hospital on the West Bank will provide further relief, she said, but the situation is still urgent.

“Our ability to continue to grow and continue to meet the needs of the medical school will be jeopardized if there is no facility solution,” she said.

A new building would allow clinics to enter the 21st century of health care, and combining all specialties in a single building would mean more efficient care, Daniels said.

With clinics currently scattered around a maze of towers in the heart of campus, and with Washington Avenue shutting down soon for light-rail construction, School of Dentistry Dean Patrick Lloyd said the new facility would offer a great improvement in accessibility.

“There are four entrances to this complex of towers, and theyâÄôre from three different streets, none of which take you to the dental school,” he said.

Any new building would be paid for primarily with revenues from clinic operations, and Daniels said officials are exploring more “financially viable” plans, including scaling down.

Even if the new care center is built, it would reach its projected capacity in 2020, and more space would be needed.

The UniversityâÄôs federal grant application was scored lower partly because the project didnâÄôt solve capacity problems for a long enough time frame, Riggs said.

For now, doctors, residents, patients and staff will have to deal with the cramped confines of the Phillips-Wangensteen Building.

“It was crazy full here earlier,” Carol Strom said as she waited at the eye clinic Wednesday.

When Strom, a retired University physical therapist, scheduled her appointment, it was the last one available for the month.