If Grays Harbor Community Hospital doesn’t become a public hospital, patients could be forced to drive to Olympia for many life-saving procedures, said hospital CEO Tom Jensen at a Friday meeting, repeating a message he’s delivered at public forums all week.
Grays Harbor Community Hospital is the region’s only hospital with a level III trauma treatment designation, meaning that more life-saving procedures can be performed there than at neighboring Summit Pacific Medical Center — which has a level V trauma designation. Jensen said he worries that if his hospital doesn’t get more funding soon, important programs could be cut, and patients would have to travel to Olympia.
“I would say that we’re between nine and 20 months away from that happening,” Jensen said.
Many of the meeting attendees — doctors, nurses, hospital staff and members of the public — agreed that higher-level service should not be sacrificed, and some pointed out that cuts to the hospital could lead to cost increases in other areas. Aberdeen City Councilman Jeff Cook said he worried the city, citizens and fire districts would end up paying more for ambulance transport if patients constantly need to be shipped to Olympia.
“Some areas are already paying a lot of money, and I don’t think they need to be paying any more,” Cook said.
Al Smith, a former volunteer firefighter who plans to run for Herb Welch’s soon-to-be-vacant county commissioner seat, agreed.
“As a former firefighter and EMT, I couldn’t support letting that happen,” Smith said.
Jensen blamed the hospital’s decline in revenue on Grays Harbor County’s high unemployment rate. Since 2008, many people have lost their jobs and now use government-funded insurance instead of private insurance. Government insurance often doesn’t cover the full cost of treatment, and in more affluent communities private insurance tends to make up the difference.
But the “payer mix” — the the ratio of private insurance to government insurance — no longer benefits the hospital’s budget, Jensen said. About 75 percent of Grays Harbor Community Hospital’s patients are covered by Medicare, Medicaid or some other government program.
“It’s really hard to get more reimbursement from the government,” Jensen said. “But if the balance is correct, the hospital makes money.”
The Legislature passed a bill in February that would increase Medicaid reimbursement for some rural hospitals. Jensen advocated for the measure for about two years, but lawmakers later added a line stating that only public hospitals would be eligible.
“It wouldn’t be a very good use of my time to get a bill passed that wouldn’t help us,” Jensen said. “I understand why they added (the amendment) but I didn’t like it. Maybe one would say that I was disappointed.”
If the hospital district measure is placed on the August ballot, voters will also be asked to elect their hospital commissioners. Jensen recommended that five people be elected to the board, but the Grays Harbor County Commissioners will have the final say.
There are relatively few requirements for hospital district commissioners. Only a registered voter who resides in the district may run, and hospital employees aren’t eligible. Jensen said elected commissioners can receive some training from the Association of Washington Public Hospital Districts.
“Usually if you get a really, really good board the hospital will flourish,” Jensen said. “If you get people on the board who are unhappy and have an ax to grind, you’re not going to do as well.”
A few citizens at the meeting were concerned about the levy that could be imposed by the new hospital district commissioners. According to Paula Bednarik, Grays Harbor County’s chief deputy assessor, commissioners could levy up to 75 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value without going to the public for a vote.
Jensen said the levy isn’t as important to hospital finances as the increased Medicare reimbursement, but the tax revenue would act as leverage for the hospital’s bonds, which total $36 million. Unlike private, non-profit hospitals, public hospital districts cannot leverage their buildings.
Twin Harbors Labor Council President John Warring, also a lab technician for the hospital, said voters should remember that if they’re not paying the property tax, they’ll be paying more in other areas.
“If the hospital shuts down, you’re going to spend that money in gas going to Olympia,” Warring said. “You either pay the piper now or pay the piper later.”
Members of the public will have another chance to learn more about the proposed hospital district at a April 28 forum, which will take place at North Beach High School from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m.
The Grays Harbor County Commissioners will also conduct formal public hearings on the matter to specifically decide the number of hospital district commissioners that will be on the ballot and the district’s boundaries.
The hearings are at 2 p.m. and 5:30 p.m., Monday, May 5, and 9 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., Wednesday, May 7. All hearings take place at the County Administration Building in the first floor commission chambers in Montesano.