Coming to a Point — Leadership or politics? That is the question


To change the boundaries or keep them the same? That was the question.

It seemed so simple.

Alas, we’ve been on quite a roller coaster ride since Grays Harbor Community Hospital proposed its new public hospital district. A fair amount of voter ruckus immediately cropped up on the North Beach and in East County, with folks in Ocean Shores and Montesano questioning whether the hospital deserved their tax money. A very tried-and-true voter argument, and not one without merit, mind you.

You see, Community Hospital applied very simple logic in deciding to gobble up as much of the county it serves for its new district: Areas X,Y and Z are all available, and if they are in our district, there’s that much more of a tax base to pull from.

It makes sense, but the hospital obviously only asked “could we” when formulating the boundaries, not necessarily “should we.”

Which takes us to Summit Pacific Medical Center, already supported by the county’s original public hospital district in East County. They presented what I considered the most compelling compromise. Basically, Summit Pacific made a very good argument that the proposed boundaries of the new district would tie its hands when it came to future expansion if the new district gobbled up Montesano. They weren’t asking for the sky, just a chance at a security blanket in the face of a constantly uncertain financial future. Leave out Montesano, and good luck to all, they said.

Summit Pacific’s argument made sense. But here’s where things got weird …

In come the commissioners … the out-of-left-field, and frankly, somewhat unrealistic approach of Commissioner Wes Cormier was to restrict the new district to Aberdeen, Hoquiam and Cosmopolis and let it beg and plead for more of the county before the voters in future. The idea is in line with minimalist government beliefs, sure, but was definitely on the extreme side.

Besides, we all know how that new district would have looked like in the future … nowhere beyond Aberdeen, Hoquiam and Cosmopolis.

Bluntly, neither of the other two commissioners were ever going to agree to Cormier’s idea. To be fair to Cormier, lines have to be drawn somewhere, so why not where the bulk of Community Hospital’s business comes from? But the effect of Cormier’s boundaries could have been to doom the new district financially before it even got started by severely restricting its cash flow from the get-go.

Remember, the commissioners didn’t have the ability to decide whether the district exists — it will appear on the ballot no matter what. So to start it in a hamstrung position just seems ill-conceived.

Back to Summit Pacific’s argument …

It didn’t just make sense to me, evidently. It made at least some sense to Commissioner Herb Welch, too. But, it may not have been the merits of Summit Pacific’s argument that were the deciding factor. Welch told Vidette Editor Steven Friederich, “If I (took out Montesano) and left the North Beach area in the district, the folks out in Ocean Shores would hang me.”

Now, I realize politicians must make decisions based on popularity sometimes. I’m not naive. But their jobs are to make the hard decisions and sometimes suffer those consequences. Besides, Welch isn’t even running again, so why justify a decision based on who will be mad at him?

It’s unfathomable to me, really. Especially when you compare Ocean Shores and Montesano. The North Beach is geographically isolated, and, for its residents, the first stop for hospital care is and always will be Grays Harbor Community Hospital. The residents on the North Beach have every right to be worried about health care access where they live, but becoming part of a hospital district with open books and at least one spot guaranteed on the board that runs it seems like the best way to try to improve that access.

In Montesano, the landscape is much different. Geographically, Montesano-area residents have a choice between Summit Pacific and Community — and Summit Pacific is a shorter drive. Sure, the two hospitals offer different levels of care, but unless we are talking about major surgery or critical injury, residents have a real choice. Besides, in many of those cases, both hospitals might transport the patient to Seattle anyway.

In the end, the commissioners decided to keep the boundaries as originally proposed, with Cormier voting against and Commissioner Frank Gordon and Welch voting for it. Summit Pacific is left landlocked, save expansion into the sparsely populated and remote Oakville area, and Grays Harbor Community has a monster of a case to make to voters who obviously are already a bit on the angsty side about the new district.

Everybody missed an opportunity here. Leaving Montesano out of the new district would have been a good compromise with positive implications for the entire county’s health care system.

Now, if the new district does pass, Summit Pacific’s financial tightrope walk just gets more precarious. If it doesn’t pass because of a groundswell of voters unhappy with its boundaries, Grays Harbor Community could be in serious financial trouble in a very short couple of years.

Ultimately, elected officials have to choose between politics and leadership when faced with tough decisions. Instead, the only choices offered here were the extremes, and this decision ultimately fell prey to politics.

Leadership would have been a welcome change. Now, in the long run, the commissioners can only hope they didn’t sacrifice one health care provider for the benefit of another.

Dan Jackson, The Daily World’s city editor, can be reached at (360) 537-3929, or by email at djackson@thedailyworld.com.

 

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