Adam Spencer, The Triplicate

Analysis of future options called an independentventure

Sutter Coast Hospital says it is launching an independent, third-party study of options for its future operation to be completed by March.

The study will focus on whether Sutter Coast should "regionalize," replacing its local Board of Directors with a Bay Area-based board that also oversees five other hospitals and two medical foundations affiliated with Sutter Health.

"Health care faces many challenges. We must be able and willing to change and adapt in order to ensure the survival of the hospital," said Andy Ringgold, Sutter Coast's outgoing board chairman, in a press release. "The board wants an objective analysis for the benefit of the community and to help guide our decision-making process."

Private foundation funding is being pursued for the study, and if that does not materialize, then Sutter Coast - not Sutter Health - will pick up the tab, said hospital spokeswoman Beth Liles.

The press release said that the study will also analyze the "clinical implications of a designation for Sutter Coast as a 'critical access hospital,'" a federal designation given to some geographically isolated health-care facilities that meet certain criteria.

The possible downsizing of hospital beds from 49 to 25 in order to qualify as a critical access facility has been painted as one of the biggest threats of regionalization by critics.

Additionally, the study will analyze "the merits of pursuing an affiliation with a health care system or party other than the not-for-profit Sutter Health network of doctors and hospitals," the release said.

In October, Asante Health System, which serves 580,000 patients in Southern Oregon and Northern California, expressed interest in operating the Crescent City hospital if the affiliation with Sutter Health does not continue.

Dr. Greg Duncan, the hospital's chief of medical staff, a member of the hospital's Board of Directors, and the lead opponent of regionalization efforts, questioned the independence of the study in an online newsletter.

Duncan referenced a list of "key messages" that Sutter Health officials delivered to the hospital's Board of Directors at a recent meeting that he believes indicates a predetermined conclusion for the study. One said: "While the study may include other health care systems or parties interested in aligning with Sutter Coast Hospital, we believe that Sutter Health is the best partner for us now and in the future."

Hospital spokeswoman Beth Liles said that the "key messages" do not signal the study's conclusion, but simply reflect Sutter Health's opinion that the study will show Sutter Health to be the best partner, "because we've been invested in this community for so long."

Liles also emphasized that Sutter Health will not fund any part of the study.

Last week, Sutter Health appealed a preliminary injunction that the Del Norte Health Care District obtained from a Del Norte judge in October.

The injunction temporarily prevented Sutter Health and Sutter Coast from pursuing regionalization and "critical access" based on a 26-year-old lease agreement between Sutter Health and the Health Care District, which signed over a publicly owned hospital and promised a new facility, (built in 1992), to be governed by a majority of local residents.

The "key messages" that Sutter Health provided the hospital board also referenced the appeal:

"This legal step was taken because we believe the court was in error granting the preliminary injunction, which ties the Board's hands and creates barriers to being able to consider and move forward with all available options to secure Sutter Coast Hospital's future."

At the same time the preliminary injunction was granted, the case was moved into arbitration to be resolved by the American Arbitration Association.

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