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Summit Pacific Medical Center researching new partnerships

The emergency room entrance at Summit Pacific Medical Center in Elma.Buy Photo
The emergency room entrance at Summit Pacific Medical Center in Elma.

On the heels of Grays Harbor Community Hospital’s announcement that the Aberdeen-based hospital was forming an exclusive “affiliation” with the much larger MultiCare Health System to increase medical services, Summit Pacific Medical Center’s board of commissioners are looking into the pros and cons of a similar move.

Over the next couple of months, commissioners of the East County-based public hospital district will decide whether to reach out to larger hospitals and join existing networks or continue to be part of a consortium of smaller hospitals.

Landon Merrill, a Master of Healthcare Administration student at the University of Washington, has spent several months researching the issue for Summit Pacific.

Merrill notes that the frequency of affiliations are a direct response to the requirements put on hospitals to comply with the federal Affordable Care Act.

Besides Grays Harbor Community Hospital joining up with MultiCare, Forks General Hospital, Jefferson Healthcare and Olympic Medical Center affiliated with Swedish Medical Center. United General Hospital in Sedro Woolley joined PeaceHealth’s regional network of care; and Island Hospital, Skagit Regional Health and Cascade Valley Hospital are expected to announce their selection of a strategic partner this summer.

David Quigg, hospital spokesman for Grays Harbor Community Hospital, said he was unaware so many other hospitals were implementing affiliations. He said the choice for affiliations for the Aberdeen hospital had more to do with providing more choices and services than complying with federal health care regulations.

Merrill says there’s indisputable evidence, however, that smaller hospitals will have challenges meeting demands of paperwork and services under the health care laws.

In a presentation a couple of weeks ago before the public hospital commissioners at Summit Pacific in Elma, Merrill recommended that the Hospital Board put out a request for information from potential partners to see if larger hospitals would be willing to work with them. One of the big issues facing Summit Pacific is implementing an integrated electronic records system, which could carry a $3 million price tag, Merrill told the commissioners. Some larger hospitals already have an electronic records system in place that could be used by the Elma hospital and could make it worthwhile to team up. If the hospital doesn’t have electronic records in place by 2014, they’ll be financially penalized, Merrill told the commissioners.

“What is an affiliation going to give us that we could get that we don’t really have already?” mused Hospital Commissioner Chad Searls. “I feel like we’re Invader Zim and we should help take over the world, not wait to be taken over.”

Last month, Summit Pacific approved a partnership with Mason General Hospital in Shelton to hire a human resources manager. The position will work three days in Shelton and two days in Elma. Hospital Commissioner Louie Figueroa noted he really appreciated the way that partnership was put in place.

CEO Renée Jensen said similar hiring arrangements could be done to bring other positions to the hospitals. For instance, Summit Pacific doesn’t have a demand for an oncology program, but, it might make sense to have a specialist on hand occasionally.

Affiliations and partnerships may also help the hospital with staff recruitment and retention. The hospital recently lost its lab manager, for instance, and Jensen has taken on the role. She said it took a full year to fill the position the last time it became vacant.

Merrill says it’s a guessing game if any of the larger hospitals would be interested in joining up with Summit Pacific, given how new the hospital is and how much room there still is for the hospital to grow.

“You may have very little to offer a larger hospital system,” Merrill said. “You may only get one or two responses. The more you have to offer a partner, the more the partner will have to offer you.”

“We agree that maybe this isn’t the best time to form an affiliation but by sending out an RFI it sends out a pulse on the market,” Jensen told the board. “Maybe we don’t do a specific strategic partnership, but maybe hospital xyz has a service to provide to us. Even though we didn’t think we were going to go that way, let’s test the waters. We may have a partner come back to see that they can fill a need that we didn’t expect. …

“It might be more interesting because MultiCare affiliated with Grays Harbor Community Hospital,” Jensen noted. “They might be interested in our marketshare.”

Merrill notes that because Summit Pacific is a designated critical access hospital, it will be insulated slightly by some of the requirements of the Affordable Care Act.

It took more than two years for Grays Harbor Community Hospital to affiliate with MultiCare. Jensen said if they look at it now, maybe it’ll make sense to do an affiliation in a couple years when Summit Pacific is bigger.

“Since we’re a public hospital district where does the public voice come into this?” Figueroa asked. “What have other public hospital districts done?”

Jensen said no public vote would be required, just an action by the commissioners, who are elected by the public. Three of them are on the ballot this November.

“You have to have community engagement, community meetings,” Jensen said. “Some hospital districts have had a gazillion meetings.”

“I think we’re going to just test the waters, take the info and bring it back so the public can see it and if it’s appropriate then we can go the next step,” Board Chairman Brent Meldrum told his fellow board members.

Board members didn’t make any decisions, but an action item will be added to a future agenda, Jensen said.