Sutter well aware that it must serve ‘public benefit’

Written by Warren Rehwaldt November 01, 2013 04:55 pm

As Del Norte County learns of the report to the Hospital Board of Directors by the Camden Group, it is well worth considering the implications of the next steps, as well as recent events.

The Steering Committee for the Camden Group, about which much has been written, finished its part of the work last week, and the report has been made ready for review by the Hospital Board as of Tuesday.

The members of the Steering Committee initially opted for confidentiality, but at the last meeting of the committee those present unanimously voted to allow their participation to be made public.  Three of those members are physicians — Sandy Saunders, Nikki Schwartz and myself — and between us we have over 35 years of experience working in this community.  All three of us have been officers for the medical staff of the hospital, and two of us have been chief of staff.

I think it is safe to say we three have a front-line view of the operation of Sutter Coast, under both the current conditions, as well as past decades.

Over the past two years our community has had intense discussions of the issues concerning Sutter Coast hospital, some of which are very real and some of which have turned out to be unfounded.

Dr. Greg Duncan, our current chief of staff, has, with the vocal assistance of several other physicians, waged a very effective campaign to bring the issues to public attention. The result of that campaign has been replacement of the CEO of Sutter Coast, a hold on the decision to join the West Bay Region of Sutter Health, and the creation of the strategic options study by the Camden Group.

All of this was being done with the backdrop of litigation by the Healthcare District Board against Sutter Health, to determine ownership of the hospital.

Of all the events that have taken place, this litigation, and the result of its settlement, has been the most important. The notion of local ownership that was so widely promoted these last two years had great appeal — secretly or openly, many in the community hoped the Healthcare District had a better case than really existed.

It was much more interesting to think of Sutter Health as a sort of “robber baron” trying to steal a hospital from a tiny county such as ours.  The fact that the suit has been settled and that the Healthcare District has forgone any further claim changes everything. No other entity has a better claim than it did, and any further campaign about local ownership would be an attempt to take away the rightful property of Sutter Health.

Wishing things were otherwise will not make them so — right or wrong, the die was cast more than 20 years ago, when the leaders of this community agreed to and welcomed a new Sutter Health facility.

There still is a case for local hospital governance, as there is nothing to prevent the Hospital Board from continuing to exist, except the Board’s own decisions. But governance and ownership are not the same, and the evidence is quite compelling that Sutter Health owns Sutter Coast and is ultimately responsible for its future.  

What has been emerging from the Camden Group study and the discussions of the Steering Committee is that Sutter Health has fully recognized the need to have support within the community it serves, and is more than willing to accommodate the interests of the community.  Sutter Health may be late in coming to that conclusion, but it appears that it has done so now.

The viability of the hospital in a changing health-care system is what is really at stake, and a huge part of that equation is the attitude and support of the community members themselves. Sutter Coast is, by virtue of its own charter, a public benefit corporation, and the scrutiny brought to bear on this hospital in the last two years has made Sutter Health keenly aware of the interest and commitment of the public to maintain hospital services.

That phrase, “public benefit,” is not just words to be filed away on a piece of paper, but a description of the role that the hospital has in this community. The long-term public benefit must shape any decision about the future of the hospital.  

It is likely that the report and some of the recommendations that will follow will surprise many persons in this community, and will serve to put to rest much of the current dispute. We physicians from the Steering Committee ask people keep an open mind as the next steps take place.

Nothing has been written in stone, and a lot of new information will need to be heard and discussed before the course of our hospital is determined. We ask for calmness and common sense to prevail, as that is the only way for wise decisions and best outcomes to occur.       

Warren Rehwaldt  is the senior physician for the Del Norte Community Health Center, the county’s public health officer and former hospital chief of staff.