CHIPLEY — Community leaders, hospital administrators and personnel, and local elected officials were all on hand Tuesday for the grand-opening of the Northwest Florida Community Hospital Specialty Center.


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CHIPLEY — Community leaders, hospital administrators and personnel, and local elected officials were all on hand Tuesday for the grand-opening of the Northwest Florida Community Hospital Specialty Center.

“This Specialty Center is a dream come true for us,” said CEO and President Pat Schlenker. Planning for the building, which houses doctor’s offices, a 2,000-square-foot education center, and other programs, began back in 2007. Schlenker said. But it became  a dream deferred when the economy started tanking in 2008.

The hospital added some modular units, “but by 2010 we were needing more quality office space so we began looking at building the center again,” Schlenker said.

The Specialty Center houses three physician practices, an outpatient psych program, the education center and diabetes education, and cost about $1.7 million to build, Schlenker said.

Dr. Gabriel Berry, Dr. H. James Wall and Dr. David Taing will all have their offices in the new facility.

The education center is a special addition, Schlenker said, because until today the only space the hospital had of similar size for training classes was the cafeteria. “The new space can also be divided into two classrooms,” he said. “And we plan on making it available to the public, as well.”

Starting in January, the Washington County Chamber of Commerce’s monthly “Third Thursday” breakfast meetings will be held at the Specialty Center.

State Rep. Marti Coley (R-Marianna) said that it was a blessing for the community to have a leader like Schlenker working for the hospital, which was nearly bankrupt in 2003 before Schlenker took over the facility.

“I’m thankful for the large hospitals in the region, don’t get me wrong,” Coley said. “But they can’t replace the hospitals in our rural communities, and your hospital is an example the rest of the state can follow.”

Signature Health Care President and CEO E. Joseph Steier, III of Louisville, Ky., said that it was the vision of men like Schlenker and the hospital’s board of directors that kept NFCH thriving while many rural hospitals have fallen on hard times, or closed altogether.

“When the public health facility is working, it brings jobs and retail to the community,” Steier said.

Signature Health Care will be partnering with Northwest Florida Community Hospital this month when the company purchases Schlenker’s majority stock holdings in the company, Northwest Florida Healthcare Inc.

Signature Health Care owns Washington Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Chipley, and is a leading provider of long-term care services in the Eastern and Southeastern United States, operating 73 communities in seven states with more than 12,000 employees, according to the company’s website.

Besides WRNC, Signature has 24 facilities in Florida, according to its website, with three of those being local — Defuniak Springs, Marianna and Graceville.

Schlenker will remain as CEO/President of NFCH for another year, then he will serve on the board of directors for three more years.

The new facility was dedicated to three Washington County Commissioners, one who currently serves on the BOCC and two who lost their seats on the commission due to their support of Schlenker’s Northwest Florida Healthcare Inc. taking over the hospital management back in 2003. All three lost their seats following the controversy, but Brock was subsequently re-elected.

James Brock, Lynn Cope and John Wall were on hand as the design of the plaque which will commemorate them was revealed.

“The citizens of Washington County will be grateful to each of these gentlemen for making an unpopular but courageous decision in 2003 concerning the direction and the future improvement of Healthcare in Washington County,” the plaque will read.

“That was truly an example of ‘no good deed goes unpunished,’” Schlenker said. He noted that the companies the opposition had wanted to take over the hospital were out of business less than two years later.

Schlenker noted that by saving NFCH, 275 jobs were saved with an economic impact of about $60 million.