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Corporation has eyes for Whidbey General Hospital

A private health care company interested in purchasing or otherwise operating Whidbey General Hospital may confuse the $50-million expansion bond election now in progress.

Hospital officials see little chance that the facility, beloved by many, will be sold, but worry that the unexpected brouhaha could affect how people vote.

Voters received their bond election ballots in the mail last week and the final date to return them is Election Day, May 17. But first, the public hospital’s board of directors will hear a presentation from Capella Healthcare, a for-profit company.

Trish Rose, hospital spokeswoman, said Capella “made a formal request last week to attend our May 9 board meeting to make a proposal. ... They wish to illustrate what they could bring to the hospital and community in lieu of a $50-million bond.”

The bond, if approved by 60 percent of the voters, would provide a new wing with 39 single-patient rooms and an additional 20,000 square feet of space for other uses. It’s an effort by the 40-year-old hospital to modernize, improve patient care and compete with other area hospitals. Cost for property owners would be approximately 34 cents per $1,000 of assessed value.

Rose, in a news release, goes on to pan the idea of a private business taking over the hospital, partially funded by property taxes. “We believe there is a clear difference in motivation: Money versus community good and service,” she said, claiming Capella Healthchare “would take money out of the community.”

Beth Wright, spokeswoman for Capella, said Monday that the company “partners with communities in a variety of ways, with the goal of providing new financial and leadership resources that empower the people who care most about its hospital.”

Wright said, “A strong, independent hospital like Whidbey General Hospital with a supportive community could be a good fit for our family of hospitals. We reach out proactively to establish contacts and provide general information about the benefits we can provide.”

“Instead of using tax dollars,” Wright added, “our hospitals can generate new tax revenues for the community.”

That message will be brought to the Whidbey Island Hospital District board by Capella’s Rick Charbonneau, vice president of development.

Based in Franklin, Tenn., Capella Healthcare owns or operates 13 general acute-care hospitals in seven states, according to its website. The only one in Washington is Capital Medical Center in Olympia. Also listed is Willamette Valley Medical Center in McMinnville, Ore. The rest are in Tennessee, Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas and Alabama.

Whidbey General officials don’t want this development to interfere with the bond election.

“Regardless of this new information we are fully committed to our vision of passing the upcoming bond and continuing on our path to further improving our physical space and quality of care for our community,” Rose said.

Tom Tomasino, CEO of Whidbey General, told hospital managers about the situation on Monday and word quickly spread. One distraught employee emailed the Whidbey News-Times saying, “I’ve been supporting our bond and now I feel as if I’ve been betrayed!”

Tomasino acknowledged Tuesday morning that some of the reaction to the news has been negative. “I heard today some are pretty panicked about it,” he said. That morning he discussed the matter with the medical staff and he said it went well.

“They stated they’re going to ask one or two members to go to the meeting and ask their questions,” he said.

Tomasino said Capella Healthcare first approached him in February and he listened to what they had to say.

“I was curious,” he said. “They had experience in turning rural hospitals around.” It’s not unusual for the hospital to receive inquiries from corporations looking for more acquisitions, he said. “Most don’t have anything to offer,” he added.

Capella cited several self-proclaimed success stories in an email to Tomasino. A “shining example,” according to the email, is the Muskogee Regional Medical Center in Oklahoma. Capella entered into a 40-year, prepaid lease with the area’s hospital authority with a payment of $120 million. This money was used to create a hospital foundation; meanwhile, Capella made a number of commitments to assure the retention of staff, level of patient care and future capital expenditures.

Tomasino said he discussed Capella’s interest with hospital commissioners individually, but he was caught by surprise when Capella requested to have a representative at the board’s May 9 meeting as the bond election is in process.

“I was taken aback by their request to formally present to the community. I shared with them I wasn’t happy about the timing, but I felt I had no choice,” he said.

The meeting Monday, May 9, will begin at 6 p.m. in the hospital’s conference room.

“The place is going to be packed,” predicted Trish Rose. Meanwhile, she said, she and Tomasino will continue promoting the bond issue.

Tomasino said he doubts there is any support among board members for the idea of working with a private company, or selling out to one. But when asked if the board could in theory sell the hospital, he replied, “My understanding is that the board can make that decision.”

As for the election, Tomasino said nothing has changed. “We’re proceeding like we’re going to remain a public district,” he said.

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