As a lifelong resident of Del Norte County, local healthcare provider, and chair of the Del Norte Healthcare District Board, I write to inform readers on the history of Sutter Health in our region, and how your Healthcare District Board is working to preserve and expand your access to affordable health care.
Twenty-eight years ago, the Del Norte Healthcare District invited Sutter Health to manage our locally owned hospital. In exchange for a monopoly over hospital care in our region, Sutter Health promised to manage a locally owned hospital, governed by a local Board of Directors, with expanded services. The Healthcare District promised to not compete with Sutter Coast Hospital. For 26 years, this relationship served our community well.
Then, on Nov. 3, 2011, the Board of Directors of Sutter Coast Hospital abruptly and unilaterally chose to end their relationship with this community. Without engaging the public, notifying hospital medical staff or employees, or consulting with the Healthcare District, the Board voted to transfer ownership and governance of Sutter Coast Hospital to a corporation located in San Francisco and controlled by Sutter Health.
The transfer of ownership was part of a Sutter Health statewide strategy called “regionalization.” The Board did not read the bylaws of the corporation, which would become owner of Sutter Coast Hospital before they voted to transfer hospital ownership to that corporation, nor did it look at any options other than those recommended by Sutter Health executives and attorneys.
Why is hospital ownership so important? Because under regional ownership, every future decision affecting our only hospital will be made by a Board of Directors in San Francisco. One such decision, which was actually made by our local Board (at the recommendation of Sutter Health executives), is its recent choice to downsize Sutter Coast Hospital inpatient beds by nearly 50 percent in order to qualify for higher payments for the care of Medicare patients, under a federally subsidized program called “Critical Access.”
Sutter’s decision to downsize the hospital to a Critical Access facility brings several guarantees:
• More profits for Sutter Health.
• More patients flown out to other hospitals.
• A cap on future growth of the hospital.
• Fewer local jobs.
When a hospital downsizes, the staff is also downsized, and employees without work will leave our county.
If Sutter is permitted to “regionalize” us, every future decision affecting our health care will be made by a distant Board. This includes whether or not to continue supporting current hospital service lines (such as pediatrics, obstetrics, and intensive care), surgical equipment (for orthopedic and general surgery, eye surgery, and urology), and diagnostic machines (MRI and CT scanners, nuclear medicine, and ultrasound).
In addition, patient care policies, employee benefits, staffing levels, contracts with physicians and employees, and how much to charge for your care — all will be decided in a boardroom in San Francisco, closed to the public.
Many local residents who have received care at Sutter Coast have expressed concern over Sutter’s high charges for care and aggressive collections practices. If Sutter Health takes ownership of Sutter Coast, we will have no local recourse to address these concerns, and no authority over the future of the hospital, forever.
Your elected Del Norte Healthcare District Board believes both of Sutter’s decisions (Critical Access and regionalization) were made for the benefit of Sutter Health, and are not in the best interests of this community. On Jan. 28, 2014, the District Board unanimously resolved that Sutter Coast Hospital should remain a locally owned acute care hospital, not a Critical Access hospital owned and governed from San Francisco.
Since it is clear Sutter Health is determined to enact its corporate plans, and end its longstanding relationship with our community, the Healthcare District is taking action.
To date, three health-care systems other than Sutter Health have expressed an interest in a closer affiliation with our community. In addition, a Healthcare District subcommittee initiated discussions this week with a national health-care firm, which has evaluated our market and stands ready to assist in any capacity the district requests.
In any challenging environment, a trustworthy partner is essential. Sutter Health, with its closed Board meetings, mandatory confidentiality agreements, inconsistent statements, and refusal to honor county requests to release documents, is no longer a trusted partner. I understand health care is changing, and our community needs to adapt to those changes. But our primary mission must be to serve our citizens, not a distant corporation.
The Del Norte Healthcare District, in collaboration with other county and city leaders, is committed to providing accessible and affordable healthcare to the 42,000 residents and thousands of yearly visitors to the hospital service area. We appreciate your input thus far and look forward to working with you in an open, honest, and transparent manner in the years to come.
Shellie Babich is a physician’s assistant in Crescent City and chairwoman of the Del Norte Healthcare District.