Community HealthCare System hospital, Onaga
Kansas Profile – Now That’s Rural: Todd Willert, Community HealthCare System
Aug. 11, 2021
By Ron Wilson, director of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at Kansas State University
Have you heard the saying about building an airplane while trying to fly it? That would be one way of describing one hospital in rural Kansas which was transforming itself while continuing to provide services – and in the case of the hospital building, a new hospital was literally built in the place of the old one. This small-town hospital in rural Kansas has been transformed into a state-of-the-art health care facility.
Todd Willert is CEO of Community HealthCare System headquartered in Onaga. He shared the story of the remarkable progress of this organization.
Todd is a native of the Chicago area. “There were as many people in my high school graduating class as in the whole town of Onaga,” Todd said. After serving in health care administration in Illinois and Iowa, he was recruited to Onaga and became CEO in 2015.
He credits a former director, the late Joe Engelken, and local physician Tom Walsh with many of the organization’s advancements through the years. Todd wrote: “When Joe joined in 1981, Community Hospital Onaga’s team consisted of 30 employees and Dr. Tom Walsh. We could have remained a sleepy little hospital in northeast Kansas, but Joe had other ideas. He looked past decades-old football rivalries and instead focused on how communities could work together.”
This led to a significant expansion in services and outreach locations for rural communities in the region. The hospital in Onaga is now part of what is called Community HealthCare System – Northeast Kansas.
Community HealthCare System, or CHCS, has grown to more than 450 associates at seven locations. Its focus is “providing compassionate, high-quality care to the rural communities of northeast Kansas.”
CHCS now has locations in the rural communities of Holton, population 3,237 people; St. Marys, 2,627; Westmoreland, 778; Onaga, 751; Frankfort, 726; Centralia, 519; and Corning, population 188 people. Now, that’s rural.
Services include family practice, medical and surgical care, childbirth services, mental health, rehabilitation, senior care and a wide range of specialty clinics. In 2015, the hospital building in Onaga was replaced by a $20 million state-of-the-art hospital with new surgical suites, in-house MRI, an expanded emergency department, private patient rooms, a new clinic, and a new birth center.
What enables a rural hospital system to progress in this way? “You have to have great providers and great staff,” Todd Willert said. “Patients have a relationship with their provider and that’s’ what stands the test of time.”
“Dr. Walsh started that whole thing,” he said. “He’s one of those rare individuals who attracts other high quality physicians to work with him.”
When Dr. Walsh began his medical practice in Onaga, he was joining the practice of his father before him. “We have a had a Dr. Walsh here for nearly eight decades,” Todd said. Dr. Walsh has helped recruit high quality young doctors to Onaga as well.
“This is by far the best medical staff I have ever worked with,” Todd said. CHCS has been recognized and accredited by the National Committee for Quality Assurance and has won numerous awards, such as being recognized by the National Rural Health Association as a Top 20 Critical Access Hospital. In 2019, CHCS was one of three Kansas hospitals to be recognized with a Becker’s Hospital Review Award – and it was the third year in a row for CHCS to receive such an award.
CHCS also includes the Eastridge Skilled Nursing Center. Eastridge was recognized by U.S. News & World Report in its rankings of best nursing homes and earned Five-Star Quality Ratings from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
For more information, see www.chcsks.org.
Sometimes it feels like we are building an airplane while trying to fly it. That’s the case for the hospital in Onaga which was rebuilt while enhancing its services. We commend Todd Willert, Dr. Walsh, and all those involved with CHCS for making a difference with innovative, patient-based medical service. I hope their health care service continues to take flight.
And there’s more. The aforementioned Dr. Walsh is retiring after 46 years in practice. We’ll learn about that next week.
Audio and text files of Kansas Profiles are available at http://www.kansasprofile.com. For more information about the Huck Boyd Institute, interested persons can visit http://www.huckboydinstitute.org.