KEARNEY — Merlin Wehling, director of anesthesiology at Kearney Regional Medical Center and a member of the board of managers, keeps waiting for the new hospital to slow down.

“You think once we opened, then we’d slow down, or once we got a year in, we’d slow down, but where is that slowdown? Every day you just try to control the explosion. Keep this wall up, keep this process moving, but this one needs attention. We keep putting out fires,” he said.

Wehling, president of Sonno Anesthesiologists, with whom KRMC contracts for its anesthesiological services, was skeptical in 2009 when 40 area doctors began talking about opening their own hospital.

“Initially. I thought building a hospital would be so much work, but I went home and began thinking about it. I asked myself, ‘If I could do it, what would it look like?’”

He began to get excited. “I’d never been part of a facility where doctors were in charge,” he said. “Doctors running and managing hospitals seemed like a pretty good idea.”

Wehling, who grew up in Shelton, said he had practiced at CHI Health Good Samaritan through the end of 2013 before teaming up with KRMC.

“I told myself, ‘This hospital is going to succeed or I will go bankrupt and have to leave town.’ I was committed pretty heavily financially,” he said.

Luckily, he said, the gamble paid off. The new hospital opened in February 2014, and Wehling hasn’t looked back.

“I’m an advocate for physician-led, physician-driven health care. We get higher scores for quality regarding patient care, outcomes and satisfaction,” he said.

“Last weekend, a nurse shared a few complaints with me, and I said, ‘How can we make this better?” I have conversations almost daily with various employees — techs, nurses, janitors — whoever. We all ask, how do we make health care better?”

“We want to treat this patient the way my dad should be treated. It’s a joy to work with people like that.”

“I know that on a day-to-day basis, it’s a lot about dollars and cents. A hospital has to pay its bills. We can’t do this for free. But we can leverage profitable service lines,” he said.

He said local board members, including its eight physicians, determine how every dollar is spent at KRMC. “If we do well, we have more to spend on patients, patient care, service lines and more. What better person than a physician to control costs?” he said. “Every dollar that comes into Kearney stays in Kearney. This is a chance to improve health care in central Nebraska.”

Wehling said he expects that within five years, KRMC will have 120 beds, up from the current 93.

A few physicians have left, he said, “but five out of 90? We’re doing something right. We are different on purpose.”

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