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KALISPELL – To demonstrate the importance of health care to Kalispell’s economy, Bryce Ward asked local people on Tuesday to imagine the city without it.

Subtract 6,300 jobs directly associated with health care, he said, and another 6,700 indirectly tied to it.

Take away the patients who travel from surrounding areas to Flathead County for their health care services, and the money they bring in. Then, figure out how much local money would leave town as county residents traveled elsewhere for their health care needs.

If you want to cut to the chase, just suck $1 billion in personal income directly or indirectly attributable to health care in Flathead County out of the local economy.

“It’s never going to happen,” Ward, the associate director at the University of Montana’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, told a large crowd at a Kalispell Chamber of Commerce luncheon. “But if it did, you could also figure on people like me moving somewhere else.”

Health care and schools are two of the most important factors people consider when choosing a place to live, said Ward, who authored a new report on the contributions of health care to the Flathead Valley economy for the Chamber.

His analysis produced some eye-catching figures.

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The biggest number, literally, was that $1 billion in total personal income directly or indirectly attributable to health care, but there were plenty of others for the Chamber crowd to sort through:

• Ward’s report says that $147 million will be spent building new doctor offices, hospital facilities, nursing homes and the like between 2012 and 2018.

• The total payroll paid to health care workers in the county is $313 million. The 6,300 workers represent 16 percent of Flathead County’s total employment, and the payroll is 21 percent of the county’s total payroll.

• Thirty percent of all the jobs in the county – 13,000 of them – are directly or indirectly attributable to health care.

• If Flathead County grows at the nationally forecasted rate – and “it will almost certainly exceed this,” according to Ward’s report – another 1,300 health care jobs will be added in the next 7 ½ years alone.

• The number of health care jobs in the county has already grown by 180 percent since 1990.

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All those numbers point to health care playing an even bigger role in Kalispell’s future, according to Ward.

“There will be more health care, which means more economic activity, and more money that’s not leaking out” of the local economy, Ward said. “That means people are more likely to stay here, and others are more likely to move here.”

Kalispell Regional Healthcare, which includes Kalispell Regional Medical Center, has gone from 928 full-time equivalent jobs in 1999 to 2,725 today, President and CEO Velinda Stevens told the luncheon crowd.

She also showed how the economic impact reaches beyond Kalispell. Of those employees, 2,108 live in Kalispell, 313 in Columbia Falls, 284 in Whitefish, 158 in Bigfork and 108 in Kila and Marion.

Another 92 live in Somers or Lakeside, 48 in Polson or Ronan, 39 in Eureka and 17 in Missoula.

Dr. Federico Seifarth, a pediatric surgeon who relocated to the Flathead Valley from Cleveland this spring, talked about Kalispell positioning itself as a leader in neonatal health care in Montana, and spoke of other projects, including a major expansion of the hospital’s emergency room, from 8,000 square feet to 37,000 square feet.

At the other end of the lifespan, Jason Cronk, CEO of Immanuel Lutheran Communities in Kalispell, told the crowd about the multiple multi-million-dollar constructions and expansions under way at its senior housing campus just south of Kalispell Regional Medical Center.

By 2030, one-quarter of Montana’s population will be seniors, Cronk said, and their residential and health care needs will play a major role in Kalispell.

“Our state is growing older than the national average,” Cronk said, “and we live in a county that is growing older than the state average.”

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