STILWELL -- The final steel beam of the Wilma P. Mankiller Health Center expansion project was hoisted into place on Jan. 15, completing the facility's two-story steel frame.�

Traditionally, a topping out ceremony is held to celebrate the construction progress, but because of COVID-19 concerns, Cherokee Nation officials chose to forego a large celebratory event to keep health providers and employees safe, officials said.

To keep tradition, tribal leaders, nurses, doctors and other staff were invited to autograph the final beam to commemorate the historic moment.�

Officials said once complete, the 80,000-square-foot expansion project will increase the facility's size to approximately 110,000 square feet, modernizing what was originally built in 1994.�

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"As we celebrate an important milestone in construction today, we also celebrate being one step closer to expanding quality health care in Adair County. This is something Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller believed in so strongly, and I am proud that we are continuing to build on her legacy," said Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. "This expansion project represents Cherokee Nation's continued, steadfast commitment to caring for our people, not only by making health care even more accessible across our reservation but also by�creating new jobs in the process, something we can all be proud of."�

The expansion is slated for completion in 2021. The facility's new portion will include services such as dental,�optometry, pharmacy expansion, a conference and community room, behavioral health, WIC, pediatrics, physical therapy, primary care, specialty care, public health nursing, medical records and administration offices.

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"I'm excited about the progress we are making in Adair County in every aspect, but especially within health care," said�Tribal Councilor Canaan Duncan. "Having�additional space means being able to care for more of our citizens more quickly, so I'm excited and grateful to see this project closer to completion."�

Among other highlights included in the project, officials said, is a new parking area that will provide an elevated drop off for patients. The expansion design was also amended to include�upgraded systems and other preventative measures to reduce the spread of COVID-19.�

"This expansion is just one more great example of our tribe investing in its people and�helping bring economic growth to Stilwell as it creates new health care jobs and construction jobs," said Tribal Councilor Shawn Crittenden. "I look forward to its completion date this year so we can continue to improve the lives of Cherokees in Adair County."�

Officials said that in recent years the health center has become one of the top three busiest of the tribe's nine health centers, experiencing a 10% increase in patient visits annually. In 2019, the health center had more than 130,000 ambulatory care visits and around 200,000 pharmacy visits, officials said.�

"2020 was a challenging year for our health system, and our patients need access to our services more now than ever before," said Health Services Executive Director Dr. R. Stephen Jones. "This year we will provide increased access and a higher level of health care in the community. This construction is an important milestone in completing a facility that will help us to achieve this."�

The Wilma P. Mankiller Health Center is the third-largest of the tribally operated outpatient health centers and is named in honor of the late Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller, the tribe's only female principal chief.