Hospital tries to stem exodus of doctors

A string of mini-exoduses from Whidbey Community Physicians has placed Whidbey General Hospital in an ongoing series of precarious situations.

A joint venture between the hospital and area doctors, however, could be the panacea that has eluded the administration.

Drs. Brian Waite and Brad Olson will leave the Oak Harbor clinic next year. Scott Rhine, Whidbey General chief executive officer, said at this month’s hospital board meeting that in order to provide strong primary care on both ends of the island, it is essential the hospital continue to work with the conglomeration of physicians.

Hospital administration met last month with representatives from the primary care group, as well as Jennifer Gingrass of ECG Consultants and attorney Jim Fredman of Foster Pepper PLLC, to discuss alternatives to the recruiting woes.

Rhine said administration had explored the possibility of forming a subsidiary corporation completely separate from the hospital to manage the physician practice. The idea was axed because of preclusive legislation.

The CEO dug deeper and discovered a different door ajar. The hospital would be able to form a jointly-owned nonprofit entity that would manage and be responsible for the physician practice.

“The hospital can’t own this entity itself,” Rhine said. But legislation for hospital districts does allow joint ventures. “That, in concept, we could do.”

He said that it appears a jointly owned corporation would not draw Medicare reimbursement away from the hospital, a definite check in the list of pros.

“We’re in the process of verifying that,” Rhine qualified.

Skagit Valley Hospital successfully formed an entity to take over cardiology.

“This is one alternative to employing physicians and always being in this predicament,” Rhine said.

He said a predetermined leadership committee would govern the group, which would be split at 51 percent Whidbey General and 49 percent physicians. The hospital administrator assured the hospital commissioners that the formation would not violate the Stark law, which is actually three separate provisions, governing physician self-referral for Medicare and Medicaid patients.

“There is a rural hospital exemption,” Rhine said.

Whidbey General became a “critical access hospital” at the end of 2005 in order to increase government-sponsored reimbursements. The designation was designed specifically to provide cost-based reimbursement for Medicare patients in smaller, rural hospitals. Rhine said he does not know how long the facility will retain that designation.

“We think this plan would be even better for us,” he said.

The CEO said he and other administration and staff plan to work with Whidbey Community Physicians by Feb. 1 to recruit additional doctors. Depending on the success of the search and retainment of professionals, the joint venture undertaking could grow legs.

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