A healthy discussion is occurring about the future of health care on the Harbor, centered around the ballot measure to make Grays Harbor Community Hospital a Public Hospital District. I am writing this article to give you all the information that I have to help you make an educated decision on how to vote.
First a little history: Before the 2013 legislative session, your coastal caucus was contacted by staff members from Grays Harbor Community Hospital to let us know that they were under financial stress because of the high number of Medicaid patients they have.
They were working with three other rural hospitals to bring a measure to the Legislature that would increase their Medicaid reimbursement to the Medicare rate for these four “Sole Community” hospitals. As a result of that contact, Senate Bill 5859 was introduced to increase the rate. As you are probably aware, 2013 was a tough budget year and the Legislature had to cut hundreds of millions of dollars. The cost to the state budget of the increased reimbursement in the bill kept it from even getting a hearing.
Before the 2014 session, at a meeting of the “Grays Harbor Jobs Team” (a gathering of local agencies, community leaders, and the Chamber of Commerce), the Coastal Caucus heard that their number one priority for the economic future of Grays Harbor was to keep the hospital running with the 600 jobs that it supports. So we went back to work in the 2014 session to do what we could to get the bill passed. It was a short session and there still was not a lot of room in the supplemental budget. There was no House bill and the Senate bill, introduced the year before, was only considered because of the agreement to add the Public Hospital requirement. This did two things: One, It narrowed the bill to potentially only two hospitals, Grays Harbor and Olympic in Port Angeles, reducing the cost of the bill, and two, it gave the skeptical legislators who needed to vote for it an assurance that the public would have some oversight of the finances of these hospitals. Olympic is already a public hospital; Grays Harbor would need to become one. The cost of the bill was reduced to about $2 million a year in state money and $2 million a year in federal money, still a significant investment. The bill as passed does not require a local tax levy to get the new state and federal reimbursement rate.
So, here is what I know. Grays Harbor Community Hospital is the only Level III Trauma Center in Grays Harbor County, which means it has surgeons and specialists available 24 hours per day, seven days a week, to treat life-threatening emergencies. Grays Harbor Community Hospital has the only Critical Care Unit in the county, which offers specialty care for the sickest patients. It is also the only hospital west of Olympia that delivers babies.
Grays Harbor Community Hospital is about $2.6 million a year in the red, which includes the payment on its debt. It has a debt of about 35 million on a recent remodel and other previous building improvements. The new money from the state and the federal government will bring in about $3.1 million a year, putting the hospital budget in the black, without raising any property taxes. There is no requirement that they pass a tax levy though they do have the authority to do so. The maximum levy that the new commissioners could pass without another vote of the people is 42 cents a thousand. Again, the new law does not require any levy to be increased.
There is an issue about the hospital building currently being used as collateral for the bonded debt. That is not specifically allowed under state law. This is an issue that arose after the law was signed by the governor, and will require some negotiation. If the Public Hospital District passes, the newly elected commissioners will be in a position to work on this, along with other items relating to the transition from a private hospital to a public one, and I am sure we all will help them.
During the last month, I have heard many concerns about the quality of service, administrative cost, debt, coverage area and cost of services at Grays Harbor Community Hospital. All these concerns are legitimate and, in fact, are the most compelling reasons to have a Public Hospital District where commissioners, accountable to you, will determine its future path. Most of the state’s rural area is covered by public hospital districts. Grays Harbor is an exception. You can find more information on other areas on the Association of Washington Public Hospital Districts web site.
If the ballot measure fails and Grays Harbor Hospital closes or services are severely reduced, the cost to local emergency service agencies will go up because of the required travel to Olympia. If the hospital closes or is severely cut back, the loss of up to 600 good paying jobs could remove $37.8 million in payroll from the local area, reducing the business at our local stores and restaurants. This could result in layoffs and more lost economic activity. This could result in businesses closing and assessed property values dropping, which could mean a property tax rate increase for the rest of us.
And this does not mention the potential lost lives because of the increased travel time to Olympia. There would also be a loss of access to care for Harborites who have a difficult time getting to Olympia, and the increased cost of getting that care because of increased travel time and the cost of gas.
As legislators we saw maintaining the hospital in our community as critical to the health, safety and economic viability of our area. Your elected representatives did their best to put the additional dollars into our hospital to keep it open.
I am voting yes. But the decision is yours. I hope this information has been helpful. Whatever the result, I am sure all of us will continue to work to keep Grays Harbor a vibrant and healthy community.
State Sen. Jim Hargrove is a Democrat from Hoquiam and represents the 24th Legislative District.