Officials from Monte and hospital come to different diagnosis

Two hospitals, two mission statements.

One has a mission: “To heal, comfort and serve our community with compassion.”

The other’s is focused on health: “… we will build the healthiest community in the nation.”

One, Grays Harbor Community Hospital in Aberdeen, implies a response to health care needs; the other, Summit Pacific Medical Center in Elma, implies a pre-emptive approach.

It’s a distinction that Montesano Mayor Vini Samuel is passionate about. And she is ready to change her community from the former to the latter.

That’s part of the reason why during a recent Montesano Council meeting, Samuel encouraged the council to vote to request that the town withdraw from Grays County Hospital District No. 2, which runs Community Hospital, and join Hospital District 1, which runs Summit. The vote was unanimous and the request was made, with a deadline of the end of September.

So far, Community Hospital board members and the administration have been just as adamant as Samuel, but in wanting Montesano to stay. They say that people in Montesano need the service of a hospital that offers a birth center, surgery and trauma care and citizens should support it financially.

Community Hospital would lose property taxes if Monte drops out, but way more concerning, hospital officials say, is the potential for lost income from referrals.

Samuel says patients treated in Montesano will be as likely to go to Community as they are now, regardless of who runs a clinic in the city.

At its meeting Sept. 20, the Community Hospital district board took no action on the request, likely triggering a petition drive by the city and possible districtwide vote on Montesano’s request.

Board President Maryann Welch proposed that the board take no action on the request and none was taken. Boardmembers Becky Walsh and Robert Torgerson agreed with Welch and the matter was dropped without a motion or a vote.

Welch said not enough is known about the financial ramifications and she wants a more deliberative process to take place.

Community Hospital says about 5 percent of its revenue comes from the Montesano area. Even if some referrals go to Community and some to Olympia, they say the loss could be in the millions of dollars annually.

Samuel says the request is driven by a shortage of primary care doctors in Montesano, where Hospital District 2 has a clinic. And despite past efforts to work together, it’s time for the city to go in a different direction.

She said the current expectation for health care in the Harbor is, “let’s just keep the doors open.”

“That is too low of a bar, and I’m tired of our residents having the expectation that they should have minimal service and be happy about it,” Samuel said during an interview. “This angers me.”

“We have the highest adult obesity, the highest teen births, the highest premature deaths,” Samuel said. “That is not our place. That is not the expectation I have for anybody or any one of my neighbors. And I think that the acceptance of that is ridiculous.”

Getting started

She has been working to bring a new clinic to Montesano for more than two years. Her vision began when Grays Harbor Community Hospital approached her and the city.

“Back in August 2016, Grays Harbor Community Hospital came to us and said we want to build an expanded clinic,” she said. “And for around seven months, we negotiated with them.”

Hospital officials say that overstates the hospital’s involvement.

The city needed some funds to do renderings and traffic studies.

“We’d just done two layoffs, and it was a fight with City Council to get that money,” she recalled.

She liked Community Hospital’s idea. She and the City Council went to work. They knew where they wanted to put a clinic. They found $18,000. They had renderings done. They studied traffic impact. They went to the Legislature to request money.

Then things changed.

“Around February 2017, (Community Hospital) said no, we’re not going to proceed,” Samuel said.

Community Hospital would soon be entering a time of well-documented financial struggles. It would result in at least 80 full-time employees being laid off and major changes for the organization.

The hospital is just starting to see some positive financial numbers, which makes potential lost revenue from a Montesano withdrawal all the more frustrating, several hospital board members said.

A residency clinic

Meantime, Hospital District No. 1 and its Summit Pacific Medical Center, with the vision of a healthy community, was expanding. Today, its Wellness Center is ahead of schedule and slated to be open next year.

And more growth is on its radar.

Summit Pacific wants something similar to what Providence St. Peter Family Medicine of Olympia is running in Chehalis: a Family Medicine Rural Training Track program, or residency clinic.

Studies have shown that doctors are prone to staying in areas where they do their residency. Residents are required to work in several medical disciplines through their three to four-year residency and the Montesano/Summit experience likely would be limiting, Community Hospital administrators said, meaning the residents would likely do much of their work in Olympia.

Community Hospital also has designs on establishing the same type of residence program. The financial problems stalled their program right at the critical point of hiring a doctor to oversee the program.

Summit has someone on staff and is passed that critical point.

For them, a residency clinic would need a home. That’s where Montesano and Mayor Samuel enter the picture.

“For Summit, they will build; the question is, where will they build?” Samuel said. “Summit is past the first, let’s say, two gates. It’s not ifs. It’s, can they meet these hurdles.

“They’re at a point where it’s a decent chance of having that program.”

But time is running out. Residents for the clinic would have to be hired in about six months. They would work for a year at St. Peter in Olympia before going to work in the residency clinic.

Samuel would like to see a residency clinic built in Montesano near Main Street and U.S. Highway 12, where the similar project with Community fell through. For that to happen, she needs money and to change the current system.

That’s why the city has asked to withdraw from Hospital District No. 2. Tax revenue from Montesano for Hospital District 2 amounts to about $150,000. Samuel says, in exchange for the shift from District 2 to District 1, Summit Pacific would agree to lease a facility, which would be built near U.S. 12. The $150,000 then effectively becomes matching money the city and Summit could take to the Legislature to seek financial support for a new clinic, Samuel said.

“This withdrawal, from a financial perspective, is very important,” Samuel said, “because if the city isn’t building a clinic, neither Summit nor Community could build it. There is no clinic for either Grays Harbor or for Summit unless the city builds it.”

Whether her passion for the change can carry it to fruition is yet to be seen.

“This type of clinic and what it can bring to the Harbor, it shifts everything,” she said.

If the petition drive to put the issue on the ballot is successful, it will trigger an extensive fact-finding process and public review. Community Hospital board President Welch said she welcomes the process. She was clearly bothered by the deadline imposed and because Montesano officials had been considering the withdrawal for months without talking to Community.

“If it proceeds, it will kick off a process to thoroughly examine all the facts, in public and not behind closed doors,” she said.