Regionalization on hold, at least for time being
Some call it an unavoidable business merger that may save the hospital; others a corporate takeover that will ultimately shrink the range of medical services available in Del Norte.
Whatever the proposed "regionalization" of Sutter Coast Hospital really is, or really means, it's on hold by court order, for now.
On Thursday, Del Norte Superior Court Judge John Morrison granted the Del Norte County Health Care District's petition for a temporary restraining order against Sutter Coast Hospital and the Sutter Health corporation, barring the local affiliate or its corporate controller from taking any further action toward merging Crescent City's hospital into a region with five other facilities and two medical foundations, all overseen by one board of directors based in the Bay Area.
Regionalization would dismantle the longstanding local board of
directors in charge of one hospital. Nine out of 10 people on this panel
live Del Norte or Curry counties, while all are appointed by Sutter
Health. Last November, this board voted 9-1 in favor of shifting its
powers to a regional authority, without holding public meetings about it
The backlash has been considerable: the Health Care District, the Del
Norte County Board of Supervisors, a group of local doctors and
increasingly more citizens are up in arms - at public meetings, in print
and now, in court.
Besides staying regionalization, the temporary restraining order
prohibits Sutter Health from downsizing or reorganizing any departments
at the hospital, particularly billing; or changing the designation of
the hospital in any way that would reduce the level of services
currently being provided.
The order expires Aug. 27, when a hearing scheduled for 9 a.m. may
extend the restraints until the case is resolved, said the attorney for
the Health Care District, Martha Rice.
The crux of the Health Care District's argument for legally halting
regionalization rests on a 1985 lease agreement between a public entity
and a private healthcare provider, which contains stipulations about the
organization and future governance of the local hospital.
"Sutter believes the District's claims are without merit as they are
based on a 1985 lease that expired by its own terms when Sutter Health
built and opened the new hospital in Crescent City," wrote hospital CEO
Eugene Suksi, in a statement distributed to hospital employees and the
board of directors Friday morning.
"There were provisions in (the lease) that were intended to last
beyond the lease and one of those was the understanding that the local
board would govern the hospital," Rice told the Triplicate.
Dr. Greg Duncan is the hospital's chief of medical staff and the only
vocal opponent of regionalization who's on the current board and
therefore allowed to attend the closed meetings where hospital decisions
are made. His declaration to the court states that what's at stake here
"will deeply affect the quality of health care available to residents
of Del Norte County."
Suksi's declaration effectively says the opposite, calling
regionalization a way to enhance hospital sustainability, provide
additional resources for hiring and retaining doctors, and lower costs
through consolidated management.
The defense attorney is Michael Duncheon, representing both Sutter
Coast Hospital and the Sutter West Bay Region.
The West Bay board may consider a resolution to approve the merger at
its Sept. 20 meeting, Duncheon's declaration states.
As for fears that regionalization is the first step toward reducing
the number of beds available at the hospital in order to utilize a
federal funding mechanism:
"It may be one of the alternatives considered," Duncheon's
However, "No application (for Critical Access Designation) is
pending," he wrote, "Nor will any be made this year. Moreover, if and
when such an application is made, it would likely take more than a year
to be completed and acted upon."
In 1985, the Health Care District struck a deal with a company then
known as Sutter Community Hospitals of Sacramento, which financed and
built a new hospital on donated land along Washington Boulevard. Since
then, the company has grown into a multi-billion-dollar non-profit
corporation with 30 affiliated hospital campuses, five medical
foundations, seven specialty surgery centers and 30 clinics spread
throughout California and Hawaii.
Del Norte's sole general hospital is one of only two Sutter
affiliated facilities that have not been consolidated under regional
management since 2008.
Community organizers have collected about 900 signatures in
opposition to regionalization, Duncan said. A town hall meeting on the
issue is scheduled for July 25 at 6 p.m. at Crescent Elk Middle School.
Reach Emily Jo Cureton at email@example.com.