According to the chairman of the local Sutter Coast Hospital Board, it may vote on whether to downsize the hospital to a Critical Access facility, and to "regionalize" the hospital, which will dissolve themselves as the governing body, and transfer hospital ownership to Sutter Health's West Bay Region in San Francisco, before the end of the year.

What's the hurry?

Two years ago, the Del Norte Healthcare District filed suit to slow down the regionalization process, which Sutter Health had initiated without informing our community.

It has been wrongly stated several times and again recently in a Coastal Voices piece by a local physician that Sutter Health owns Sutter Coast Hospital. When Sutter Health and the Del Norte County Local Hospital District negotiated a contract to build a new hospital in 1985, it was agreed that Sutter Health would manage the hospital for an annual fee, the profits that Sutter Coast Hospital generated from its local patients paid for the facility and Sutter Health did very well managing the facility over the years.

It was also agreed that Sutter Coast would be operated as a locally owned entity, with a local Board.

If ownership is transferred it will be to the Sutter Health subsidiary The West Bay Region.

When the current Healthcare District settled its lawsuit with Sutter Health, Sutter Health inserted language into the proposed settlement agreement stating the Del Norte Healthcare District admitted that Sutter Health owned Sutter Coast.The DelNorte Healthcare District insisted that Sutter Health remove the erroneous language, and it did.

The Healthcare District's responsibility to the local taxpayer is to provide a continued high level of health care to the residents of this community - the Wellness Center is one example. The Healthcare District could not afford prolonged litigation with a multi-billion-dollar corporation with a multi-million-dollar legal budget.

The findings of the Camden Group study on the future of the hospital were identical to what Sutter predicted from the outset - Sutter Coast Hospital is losing money and the only way to solve the problem is to downsize to Critical Access.

The real question is whether or not it makes sense to stay with Sutter Health, or should we seek other partners?Sutter Health's business model is designed for health care delivery in large cities. Although Sutter Health claims consolidating services with the other regionalized Bay Area facilities will lead to efficiencies, it cannot point to any examples of these claimed efficiencies.

The fact is, Sutter Coast Hospital does not fit Sutter Health's business model, and Sutter Coast is not part of Sutter's region. Why not explore a closer relationship with Asante, which specializes in rural health care, operates in our region, and has publicly expressed an interest in a closer affiliation? If we turn ownership over to Sutter's West Bay Region, we will forever lose our opportunity to have a meaningful voice in the future of the only hospital in our county.

What I still do not understand is if Sutter Coast Hospital is losing the millions it claims, why is Sutter Health so determined to stop us from engaging other partners?

I would also suggest that now that the Camden Group has completed its study, an independent group review its findings and report back to the community before the hospital Board makes its decision on the future of the hospital.

I understand some of the hospital Board members are employees of Sutter Health or a Sutter affiliate. Those Board members are subject to bias and should not vote on transferring hospital ownership to Sutter Health.The remaining local members of the Board have the responsibility to represent the residents of this community and not the bottom line of Sutter Health.

Sutter Health has spent a lot of time and money trying to convince the local Board and others in this community that it is the best and only fit for our rural area. It has removed its former CEO and replaced him with a corporate ladder climber who has successfully divided our community - going so far as telling the Board of Supervisors at one point that Critical Access was not being discussed. She hand-picked a local committee whose members were required to sign non-disclosure agreements to help with the Camden report.

The steering committee got their seat at the negotiating table and ended up with nothing (sounds familiar). Now that the names have been released, it's time to analyze who on the steering committee may have a bias.

Are any of them Sutter Health or Sutter Coast employees or affiliated with them? Do any of them operate non-profits in the community and has Sutter offered any funds to them? Also, the current chairman of the Del Norte Healthcare District Board did not have the permission of the Healthcare District board to represent the Board. In fact it is on record that he was only representing himself.

The interim Sutter Coast CEO is an employee of Sutter Health, not Sutter Coast.When this is over,if Sutter Health remains in the community, I suspect a new face will emerge to run the hospital, as part of Sutter's plan to lull the community into forgetting what Sutter has done here.

With all the changes taking place with health care in our country, should we not take the time to look carefully at what our Sutter Coast Hospital will look like several years from now, who will be our doctors,who will they be working for, and more importantly where will we be sent when the hospital is full?

Sutter Coast Hospital is a locally owned public benefit charity. Once ownership is transferred to the West Bay Region, we will lose any control we now have. The public, not a local hand-picked "steering committee" or a hospital Board appointed by Sutter Health, should have the strongest voice in the hospital's future. For something this important to the community, let's figure out a way to put the options up for vote.

Dwayne C. Reichlin is a Smith River resident. He is a member of the Del Norte Healthcare District Board, but wrote this piece representing only himself.