Officials from the University of Vermont Medical Center and the town of Essex threw on hard hats and moved around a bit of dirt last week to celebrate breaking ground on a new primary care facility along Route 15 and Essex Way.

The event commemorated the start of construction on a building that will soon become the new home of the Essex Primary Care, relocating the practice from its current home inside a squat brick facade along Main Street that hospital officials describe as antiquated and undersized.

“The previous space didn’t meet the current needs for the population that we’re serving, and didn’t meet our promise of keeping people in Vermont as healthy as possible,” said Dr. Stephen Leffler, interim president of the medical center.

At nearly twice the size of the practice’s current location, which UVMMC has leased since 1985, the new building will have 14 exam rooms and enough space to add up to eight more, if needed.

More space brings an opportunity to better serve patients, Leffler said, noting the new building will make room for services like mental health providers, dietitians, social workers and wellness coaches that have become a common pillar of the team-based primary care approach.

The medical center has also assigned an additional physician and physician’s assistant to the practice, which Leffler said will increase its capacity up to 3,000 patients a year. And the Essex location has long been a popular landing spot for medical students seeking outpatient experience, with a course director serving as a physician at the practice, according to Jennifer Gilwee, division chief for general internal medicine and geriatrics who oversees five primary care sites, including Essex.

A bird’s eye view of the planned primary care facility (Rendering by Scott + Partners Architecture).

The prospect of more room to maneuver was welcome news for Barbara Lindberg, a RN triage nurse who said the practice has grown when she started 13 years ago. Essex Primary Care used to have one nurse on site most days, she said. Now there’s typically three, but the staff’s growth has not been matched by the building.

“On a busy day when there’s a lot of patients coming in to see providers, there isn’t always a spot for a nurse to meet with a patient who comes in with questions,” Lindberg said.

The new facility will provide more privacy for patients, especially families, who sometimes need a larger space to have discussions about plans of care for a loved one, Lindberg said.

Approved by the Green Mountain Care Board earlier this year, the $8.6 million project will be paid out of UVMMC’s capital funds, covering the price of the land and construction of the 12,500-square foot building. UVMMC expects the new facility to be open to patients starting spring 2020.

It will be built to conform to current standards for clinical practice sites, with upgrades like bigger exam rooms and waiting areas, and constructed with a goal to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, standards.

Essex Primary Care has already found itself on the forefront of the hospital network’s vision, piloting a telemedicine program that allows patients to receive care recommendations without having to leave their home. These technologies will be expanded in the new facility, officials say, with a room dedicated to the telemedicine.

Hospital officials told The Reporter in 2017 that they expect Vermont’s aging population and increased efforts to keep people out of emergency care facilities to increase the amount of primary care visits in the state. Estimating thousands more patients could choose the Essex location, which is why the officials said they wanted to pick a site that will serve UVMMC in the coming decades.

The hospital’s long-term vision aligns well with that of town officials, who expressed excitement last week over the prospect of a new facility within the municipality’s borders, especially so close to senior housing.

“Like every community in Vermont, Essex is impacted by public health issues like obesity, diabetes, heart disease, mental illness, domestic abuse and addiction,” Haney said. “Having more and better medical services close by and easily accessible will help our community rise to those challenges.”