Guest Commentary: A foggy forecast for hospital
Hospitals are critically important community institutions. The vital role played by the 80-bed Petaluma Valley Hospital is regularly illuminated by the lives that are saved there every week.
During the horrific wildfires of the last few years, the hospital was the only one in the county that consistently remained open to provide life-saving services, deliver babies and treat injuries. And although 62% of Petaluma residents are currently insured by Kaiser Permanente, which has facilities in Santa Rosa and San Rafael, if you suffer a serious health care crisis you are going to want to get to the PVH emergency room as soon as possible.
Yet the dramatic and often unpredictable changes in health care nationwide are causing hospitals to close, including one in Sebastopol that was recently shuttered and reopened as a long-term acute care facility. Keeping that from happening here is the primary responsibility of the Petaluma Health Care District, a public agency with five elected representatives and a small staff. Their job is to guarantee the continuance of the high-quality emergency and acute care services at the hospital which many of us wrongly take for granted.
Following the expiration of a 20-year lease management agreement with St. Joseph Health in 2017, negotiations aimed at having the Catholic healthcare provider continue operating the hospital broke down over financial terms and St. Joseph’s decision to discontinue providing women’s reproductive health services, which are at odds with the institution’s religious precepts.
The district subsequently launched a robust search for a new operator but that failed when no qualified applicants came forward. Hope was renewed last year when St. Joseph announced it was negotiating with Adventist Health to form a new joint operating company that would have solved the matter of how to offer women’s reproductive healthcare locally since Adventist lacked any religious opposition to providing such services.
But last October, Attorney General Xavier Becerra, for reasons entirely unclear, decided to quash the St. Joseph/Adventist merger, thus throwing the future of Petaluma’s hospital into further disarray. Ironically, Becerra issued a brief statement that the proposed deal would have limited “access and availability of health care services,” while it would, in fact, have had just the opposite effect.
While St. Joseph has continued to operate the hospital on an interim basis, the facility’s uncertain future has hampered physician recruitment, employee retention and capital investment. It’s also added increased complexity to the ongoing labor negotiations with nurses seeking a new contract for pay and benefits.
So, is there any good news here? Possibly. According to Ramona Faith, CEO of the PHCD, the district recently received a “letter of intent” from St. Joseph and its parent company, Providence Health, proposing that a Providence affiliate manage Petaluma’s hospital. That company, Western Health Connect, was described to PHCD as a Washington-based “organization that manages other-than-Catholic hospitals for Providence/St. Joseph Health and will create a California subsidiary that would manage and operate PVH.” The proposal assures that PVH would maintain all existing services and that “obligations of existing labor relationships will be honored and assumed.”
After doing a little research, I learned that Providence, also a Catholic hospital system, created Western Health Connect as a separate entity when it affiliated with Swedish Health Services, a secular hospital organization in Seattle providing women’s reproductive services, in 2012. It is located in the same building that houses the headquarters of Providence Health in Renton, Washington.