For North Beach residents, the major concerns about Grays Harbor Community Hospital forming a public hospital district seem to revolve around access to services and representation in the district.
About 100 people attended a forum at North Beach High School Monday night as the hospital winds down a series of forums designed to gain support for its proposal to form a public hospital district that would include the entire county, except for the Elma and McCleary areas, which are already part of a hospital district. This was the fifth forum and drew the largest crowd so far.
Some citizens balked at the idea of paying Community Hospital for services so far from home: The Ocean Shores area accounts for about 10 percent of hospital usage, but would pay about 20 percent of the cost of a property tax levy, according to handouts at the meeting.
Chief Executive Officer Tom Jensen had an answer ready: Run for the new hospital district commission.
“They could get together and make a decision to do whatever they wanted to, including a clinic, urgent care, whatever they wanted” in Ocean Shores, Jensen said.
“I’m not a politician and I would never tell someone how to run a campaign,” he added, but “that would make a great platform.”
Some suggested a clinic or even a new North Beach hospital would be a more effective use of money than paying into the existing hospital.
“Any time you’re duplicating people in suits like me, you’re not saving money,” Jensen replied.
Hospital commissioners could, if the district is approved, levy up to 75 cents per $1,000 of assessed 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 that would come with the hospital district status. The hospital is currently, a private-non profit entity. But the tax revenue is necessary, Jensen has said, to act as leverage for the hospital’s bonds, which total $36 million. Unlike private, non-profit hospitals, public hospital districts cannot leverage their buildings, which means the commissioners would likely need to have some sort of levy, Jensen said.
Jensen has estimated the hospital has between nine and 20 months to sort out its finances before serious service cuts will have to be made.
Because of the area’s chronic high unemployment, relatively few people have private insurance and fully 75 percent of Community Hospital’s patients have Medicare, Medicaid or some other form of government insurance.
That insurance often does not cover the hospital’s cost to provide the services, Jensen said. The Legislature passed a bill in February that would increase Medicaid reimbursement for some rural hospitals, but a last-minute amendment gave the benefit only to public hospitals.
At Monday’s meeting, one man asked whether the federal Affordable Care Act was the cause of the hospital’s financial woes.
“I would say at this point in time it didn’t help, but what really caused it is the lack of jobs,” Jensen said. “Weyerhaeuser, (Harbor Paper) — having private payer insurance and having a thriving community makes everything work.”
Greater Grays Harbor, Inc. Executive Director Tim Gibbs painted the problem in terms of economic development.
“You’re looking at one of the largest private employers currently in the county, 650 jobs,” Gibbs said. “If you don’t deliver babies and you don’t have a 24-hour emergency room, it’s certainly going to be less than what’s there.”
“We know we need more jobs, we know we need to rebuild our economy, there’s a lot of people working night and day to make that happen,” he continued. “This is one of the building blocks we have to have. Can you imagine if we were talking about a school and we weren’t going to have a school?”
Grays Harbor County Commissioners Herb Welch and Frank Gordon were there to ask questions, and Gordon made his own pitch for approval.
“Everybody’s crying about having a public district,” Gordon said. “There’s one benefit of a public district. Everybody complains we have no control over what happens at the hospital. You get to pick the people who are (Jensen’s) boss, you get to pick people who say, ‘We want a clinic in Ocean Shores.’ … That in itself is worth a yes vote.”
Several people asked about the potential makeup of a public hospital commission. It may have at-large membership, meaning anyone from anywhere can run for any seat, or it may be district-based. The county commissioners will ultimately decide how the hospital commission is made up, how many members it will have and where the boundaries of the district itself will be.
Four public hearings have been scheduled with the county commissioners: 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.
For those in the North Beach area who missed Monday’s meeting, Community Hospital has scheduled a second for 2 p.m. Thursday, May 8, at the Ocean Shores Lions Club.
The hospital has set up a Facebook page to provide information specifically about the public hospital district, available at facebook.com/GraysHarborPHD.