Hospital equipment library plans move to Richland

A Pasco nonprofit that lends medical gear, including wheelchairs, hospital beds, crutches and more, is preparing to turn a vacant site by a busy Richland intersection into its new hub.

Knights Community Hospital Equipment Lend Program, or KC Help, intends to develop its new headquarters and a commercial self-storage facility on five acres at the corner of Van Giesen Street and the bypass highway.

The $2.8 million vision includes a storage business to provide income to support KC Help’s mission to provide hospital equipment to patients who would otherwise go without.

The property is owned by Knights of Columbus, which created KC Help in 1998 to fill gaps in coverage from insurance, Medicare and Medicaid. Tri-Citians who need crutches, canes, wheelchairs, bathtub stools, toilet risers, walkers and other aids but aren’t eligible to have them covered have relied on it for years.

In the years leading up to the pandemic, it served about 2,500 patients annually.

Demand dipped in 2020 to about 2,200 but has been rising since then.

Wheelchairs – both standard and electric – are its most popular offering, with 528 supplied in 2021. Bathtub stools, canes and crutches are also popular items, but its inventory also includes lift chairs,  transfer poles and more.

Customers are concentrated in the Tri-Cities, but come from as far away as Idaho, eastern Oregon, western Washington and in one case, Alaska.

Jerry Rhoads, a retired electrical engineer who founded KC Help, said the 5,300-square-foot facility near Pasco City Hall that it calls home isn’t large enough to keep up with demand that isn’t just growing but is shifting, courtesy the Covid-19 pandemic.

It will keep the Pasco center as a distribution facility and light repair shop. A Premera grant helped add internal space. 

Rhoads once thought – and hoped – the American Care Act would reduce the need for the lending program to fill the gaps in equipment health care needs.  It’s been the opposite, he said.

Over the years, Medicare and Medicaid tightened the criteria to qualify for items such as wheelchairs. Private insurers followed their lead. KC Help always aimed to fill a gap. Instead of narrowing, the gap widened

The Covid-19 pandemic is altering demand as well. Patients who might have been hospitalized are being treated at home. That’s led to a rise in requests for hospital beds – nearly 150 in 2021.

The problem is compounded by the waves of Covid infections that sweep in.

“Every time a new variant comes through, our inventory of beds goes down. And when it passes, it comes back up,” said Rhoads, who likes to think it is because the users recovered and no longer need the beds.

It creates a storage challenge. The Pasco facility is hard pressed to handle the waxing and waning of inventory.

“Expenses have gone up and space has gone down,” he said.

Redeveloping the site was not cost effective, so Rhoads’ KC Help team began thinking about the 10 acres Knights of Columbia owns at 2500 Chester St. in Richland, where it operates a social club and bingo hall on one end. The Knights will donate the land on the other, facing Van Giesen.

The property is visible from both Van Giesen and the bypass highway, across the Port of Benton-owned railroad tracks.

The fraternal organization lost its direct access to the bypass when the road was widened but retained the right to develop a driveway on Van Giesen.

Rhoads spoke with the city and secured financial support for the Richland project from the Home Builders Association of Tri-Cities and Three Rivers Community Foundation. The driveway will enter at the far western edge of the Knights property.

The property is served by city water. But sewer lines stop on the other side of Van Giesen, near the Columbia Basin Racquet Club.

Rhoads said the city is supportive of the plans. He expects to have site plans approved around March. He will not launch a capital campaign until permits are in hand, but several supporters have already sweetened the pot with more than $100,000 in donations and another $100,000 in commitments.

The plan includes two buildings totaling 16,000 square feet to serve as corporate offices and other facilities for KC Help.

The self-storage facility will have 250 or more units, a storage yard for boats and recreational vehicles, and will be self-managed by KC Help, with a big assist from technology. The site has room to expand. The committee includes storage industry experts, who note the region is underserved for ministorage.

The for-profit business is an innovative approach, conceived to bring in money and reduce KC Help’s reliance on fundraising to support its mission. It spent about $101,000 in 2021, Rhoads said.

Rhoads cites Columbia Industries as an inspiration. Columbia Industries, a Kennewick nonprofit serving Tri-Citians with intellectual disabilities, has bought several for-profit businesses, including Round Table Pizza, to not only raise money, but provide an outlet for its clients to work.

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