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Election 2007: Speir faces Wallin for hospital seat

In the race for Whidbey Island Public Hospital District’s third commissioner position, voters will choose between equally passionate men with extremely different backgrounds.

Bert Speir, a retired Naval captain, was commanding officer of Naval Hospital Oak Harbor from 1993 through 1996. He spent 11 years as a clinical psychologist and the last 20 years in program management, executive medicine and health care administration.

“I’ve kind of been on both sides of the equation with regard to delivering care and managing it, orchestrating and planning, and overseeing,” he said.

Speir, 60, is currently president of the Whidbey General Hospital Foundation. His extensive education, including a doctorate in education, has afforded him different levels of knowledge and perspectives.

He and his wife, Mary Ann, fell in the love with the area and have lived in Oak Harbor for a total of seven years. After so much time in transit, the couple finally set up camp permanently.

Ron Wallin, owner and president of P & L Construction, may have a little more name recognition, having lived on Whidbey Island for nearly 50 of his 55 years.

After graduating from Oak Harbor High School, Wallin worked with North Whidbey Ambulance for four years and then moved to South Whidbey for eight years after being asked to set up the ambulance service on the opposite end of the island. During his ambulance years, he came to know many of the doctors and staff at Whidbey General Hospital. Both his father and his brother worked for the hospital.

Since buying out P & L Construction more than a decade ago, he has watched it expand into another office in Bremerton. In the past year the company has earned between $25 and $30 million in contracts.

Wallin and his wife, Gayle, who is in the RN program, raised four children and have stepped back into the parenting role after adopting two grandchildren.

Neither candidate is vying for the North Whidbey position, that Barbara Saugen will vacate, with any agendas or coups in mind.

“I think the board has done a credible, competent job,” Speir said. “I don’t see anything that’s derailed or that’s about to.”

“I’m not going to come in with any biases,” Wallin similarly said.

Speir said he has grown to love the hospital and was approached by Dr. Roger Case, president of the board of commissioners. Ensuing discussions with Saugen also helped in making the decision to run.

“I met several times with Barbara and she whetted my appetite for the opportunity and the adventure,” he said. “I think I have the experience, the expertise and the commitment to make a difference.”

Wallin has literally watched the hospital develop from its infancy. Part of the impetus to run was his desire to see Whidbey General’s reputation built up to the level he remembers.

“It’s the only hospital on the island,” he said. “To me it’s like we have to build it back up to what it used to be. It used to be the premier place here. You watch a lot of people going off the island. You need to examine why people are leaving the island, re-look at the basics.”

Speir agreed that the hospital needs to engage and reengage patients in correspondence to ascertain why people leave the island for hospital services available locally.

“I think you need to touch base with the patrons and find out what is making them leave,” he said.

The board’s job is not to micromanage, but to address valid issues and move forward accordingly, Wallin said. He brings an outsider’s perspective to the table and crafted pragmatism.

“That’s one of the biggest things that I’ve always been is a problem solver,” he said.

Speir said the board serves as an invaluable conduit for information between the public and the administration.

“The hospital is a tremendous resource on this island,” he said. “It’s an essential resource and I think the board of commissioners provide the connection between the community owners of the hospital and the administrative staff that run it on a day-to-day basis. The commissioners are the liasion. The continuous oversight that the board provides is very essential.”

Both commissioner candidates see consistent and ramped up public relations as the void-filler. If any negative public perceptions about the hospital linger for whatever reason, Speir felt data can be very telling when examining how people feel about Whidbey General compared to other facilities like Island Hospital in Anacortes.

“All it takes is one unpleasant experience and enticing you back is a real challenge,” he said. “It can’t be cured overnight. You need to collect the data and share with patrons what the current reality is.”

Comparing pertinent numbers at Whidbey General with other geographically proximate or similarly-sized hospitals is important, Wallin agreed. If some prospective patients have decided that services are better elsewhere, he added, the problem has been identified and can then be tackled.

“We need to know those numbers in order to direct staff,” he said.

Recruiting and retaining doctors or specialists at Whidbey General has been an ongoing problem that either candidate will have to contend with if elected. In the case of attracting young doctors out of medical school, Speir said the hospital must offer a working environment that will stretch their skills.

“Young providers want to go into a community or facility where they’re going to have a diversity of patients, because they’re going to want to build a portfolio of cases,” he said.

Wallin said the problem is nationwide. While in Savannah, Ga., he saw the community rally around new physicians making the town their home.

“When they get a new doctor, they make a big event of it,” he said, noting a lack of community involvement at Whidbey General. “They really promote that throughout the community.”

To help with recruitment, Wallin recommended teaming up with other hospitals to pool together ideas and resources thereby creating leverage.

“They’re having the same problem,” he said. “The board needs to be more active in coming up with more recruiting methods. In order to recruit doctors here, we’ve got to make sure we have a first class facility, that it has a good reputation. We need to win people back over and get them to come back. That comes down to a better PR program.”

While recruitment is a priority, Speir said he has considerable faith in the current hospital personnel.

“I’m impressed with the commitment and the excellence of the administrative staff at Whidbey General now,” he said.

The career medical professional said Naval Hospital Oak Harbor’s shift from an emergency room facility to urgent care will not likely overburden Whidbey General. The Navy decision was not rash, but carefully thought out, he added.

“It could bring more people to Whidbey General, but my suspicion is that it probably won’t be that substantial,” Speir said.

Having worked with federal agencies, Wallin said it is wise not to make long-term plans based on recent changes.

“They could totally turn around and completely re-staff the hospital,” he said. “You can’t plan long-range with the military.”

Wallin said the existing doctors also need to help the hospital by working together and placing their egos aside, a successful tactic he has learned while toiling with Oak Harbor’s Comprehensive Plan.

“As a diversified group, we did a good job making it work,” he said.

Speir described himself as “collegial and collaborative,” attributes that will serve the board well as it grapples with issues that are not unique to Whidbey Island. He added that balancing the delivery of quality health care and financial stability is the key.

“These issues are happening at any rural hospital,” he said. “It’s a real treasure and a real resource we have.”

In addition, keeping up with technology and advances in equipment will be tantamount to keeping patients on the island, Speir said. When a levy is inevitable, he said the hospital must examine how much the tax base can afford and determine what the community will support.

Both candidates share a respect for each other, which has made for a gentleman’s race.

“We’ve spoken several times,” Wallin said. “He’s a really nice guy. No matter what the election outcome is, we both want to be involved. He has good credentials. My whole take on it is sometimes you need to bring in somebody from the outside.”

“He’s seems like the consummate gentleman,” Speir said.

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