On April 25, 2017, Chelan Valley residents in the hospital district will be asked to vote on a proposed levy that, if approved, would fund $20 million for the building of a new Lake Chelan Community Hospital (LCCH) facility through an increase in property taxes. The Hospital and its Foundation would contribute an additional $24.5 million (through loans and savings) to reach a total New Hospital cost of $44.5 million.
In an effort for both sides of the argument to voice their points and answer questions from citizens, a community forum took place on Thursday, March 30, 2017, at Chelan High School’s Performing Arts Center and was live streamed on GoLakeChelan.tv. Both the vote yes and vote no groups agreed that the event be moderated by Chelan High School English teacher, Steve Bovingdon.
The ‘Citizens for a New Hospital Now’ chose Ty Witt, MD, Chief Medical Officer at LCCH, Megan Guffey, MD, a family physician at LCCH, Guy Evans, community member and advocate, and Keri Bergeson, MD from Columbia Valley Community Health (CVCH) to represent the group. The ‘vote no’ group was represented by Mike Sherer, a community member and orchardist.
The format for the event was set up as a standard debate with both sides offering introductions, rebuttals and answering questions from community members, which were timed and moderated by Bovingdon, before closing statements were offered.
Evans and Dr. Bergeson opened the debate. Evans gave a brief summary of the group’s overall message in favor of the new facility.
“If you are to vote yes, you are voting to maintain current services,” Evans stated. “It is going to be about $10 per month, per household in support for the hospital, and you would be adopting a policy that is pragmatically optimistic.” Evans passed the microphone to Dr. Bergeson to continue the opening statement.
“As a caretaker in the community, I also don’t want us to lose the real heart of this. This is not abstract, Bergeson said. “This is about care for our family and friends and loved ones. I am tired of making excuses to my patients why they don’t have the care that they deserve, and it’s always related to the limitations of the facility.”
Bergeson continued to inform the audience that the University of Washington is working with CVCH on a medical residency program in Chelan.
“A residency is like an apprenticeship. They do one intense year in Seattle, then come to Chelan for two years. Seventy percent of residents stay within 30 miles of the areas in which they were trained,” Bergeson explained. “We currently only train residents in big cities. We need to start training doctors in rural areas, so they stay in rural areas. We are not going to be approved for this program in our current facility.”
Sherer, representing the opposition opened by summarizing that the ‘vote no’ group had three major arguments against the new facility: vision, ethics and revenues.
“The new hospital vision is wrong, we don’t want massive new debt,” said Sherer. “We want to fix the hospital that we have currently. We want to stabilize and ship critical patients to a larger facility.”
Sherer continued, “The current commissioners have failed tax payers for over 20 years. They have failed to perform maintenance on the current hospital and have failed to listen to the will of the people. On the revenue end, there is a Pollyanna view of future finances using biased numbers. This is neither the time nor the project for this community.”
A timeline was presented by Sherer demonstrating the course of events following a 2005 facility inspection report, which showed the current hospital scoring marginal to inadequate in all areas. He stated that the timeline showed that following that inspection, the first bond levy went to voters to renovate the hospital in 2007. That bond failed. Two subsequent levy votes went to voters between 2007 and 2015 to rebuild the facility, both failing to receive the 60 percent to pass.
“Since that time (2007) there has been little to nothing done to address those issues, and it has degraded further over the course of the past 12 years,” Scherer said.
Dr. Guffey responded in the rebuttal explaining that the commissioners surveyed the public following the failure of the 2007 bond vote to ascertain why the community did not vote in favor of renovation.
“They found that the majority of voters said that they would rather spend the money on a new facility, than updating the out of date facility,” Guffey stated.
Next, both groups answered questions chosen by Bovingdon from the audience.
If the community votes no in April, how do you propose to pay for renovating the current hospital?
“If we had a can-do attitude we could do some imaginative work to find a way to get that work done, possibly with volunteers,” Sherer proposed. “There are probably a lot of people in this community willing to volunteer to do work.” Sherer added that he would donate his excavator to move dirt and believes that other contractors would do the same.
Ty Witt, MD, commented that he hopes that should the vote for a new facility pass, Sherer would be willing to extend that same offer to help reduce costs.
Can you compare Chelan to Leavenworth Hospital which built a new facility and is now in fiscal and MNO failure?
“There are a few differences between the two facilities. I am not aware that Leavenworth is in fiscal failure. From what I know, they are actually in great shape,” Guffey replied. “Leavenworth does not deliver babies. They do not perform surgeries, but their taxpayers are paying more in taxes for that facility than what we are proposing here. So, they are paying more money for fewer services, and we are trying to provide more services for less.”
Should the hospital default on the loan portion of the new facility budget, will that debt be passed on to taxpayers?
“They (hospital) would find a way to make that loan solvable,” Witt explained. “There is simply no way that it can automatically go back to the taxpayers. The hospital will carry the loan, the $22 million share, and the bond will come from the taxpayers over that 35-year term. They are both completely separate of one another.”
Sherer rebutted stating that should the loan default the community would be held “hostage” to provide the funds to pay the loan. “It will be our community hospital that will be on the ropes.”
How would you respond to residents living on a fixed income for which any increase in taxes would have a significant impact on financial stability?
“That’s a very touchy point in how our commissioners and administrators came up with this plan,” Witt replied. “It was important for the hospital to carry as much of this loan as we can. That is why the $22 million loan, WIFLI, the accountants told us was our safest number.”
Another point that Witt wanted to express to the community is that residents that are treated at the hospital can bring their tax bill to the billing department and have those tax dollars paid applied to their hospital bill.
Closing arguments began with the ‘Citizen for a New Hospital Now’. Witt offered a prediction that the new facility would have a large impact on the town.
“It will become a uniting, prosperous, shining jewel for the Lake Chelan Valley,” said Witt. “I want to own that can-do attitude that Mike has mentioned. I believe that our people and our staff have had that attitude, and that is how we have made things work for this long in the facility that we have.”
Sherer made the final argument of the evening relating to his original points regarding vision, ethics and revenues.
“Maintain the current facility. Do not replace it, no new massive debt. Live within our means. Stabilize and ship critical patients. We need new leadership at the hospital with a can-do attitude,” Sherer said.
(By Jillian Foster)