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Audit results in clinic closure

Plans are being made to close the North Whidbey Physicians Clinic in Oak Harbor following a revelation by the Washington State Auditor’s Office.

A routine state audit of Skagit County Public Hospital District 2 revealed that it should not have been operating its Oak Harbor clinic, because Oak Harbor is within the boundaries of the Island County Public Hospital District.

The two hospital districts could have hashed out an operating agreement to allow North Whidbey Physicians to continue, but the Island County district declined to negotiate.

Island County Hospital District board members discussed the issue on Nov. 12, according to Scott Rhine, Whidbey General Hospital chief executive officer. “They felt it would be inappropriate,” to support the clinic, Rhine said Monday. “It’s just unusual for another district to put up services unless there’s a need we can’t meet. The more they discussed it, the more they felt it was inappropriate.”

Rhine said the Skagit hospital district opened its Oak Harbor clinic around 1995. It presently has two physicians hired by the Skagit district who refer some of their patients to Island Hospital in Anacortes, thereby depriving Whidbey General Hospital in Coupeville of potential business.

The state audit noted that the law allows one hospital district to have a clinic within the boundaries of another, but not without a contract or operating agreement with the district in which the clinic lies. Such an agreement never existed between the Skagit and Island hospital districts.

“Because the (Skagit) district inappropriately opened the clinic outside of its boundaries, a competitive environment was created,” for the Island County district, the audit states.

Vince Oliver, administrator of the Skagit hospital district, said Monday that he has discussed the situation with Whidbey Island hospital officials. “I talked to Whidbey General for common ground, but Whidbey declined,” he said. The final audit was released to the public on Nov. 9, but the finding about the clinic was known by hospital district officials in August.

Rhine said the state audit’s finding caught him by surprise, as he was unaware of the law regulating clinic locations. “I don’t know how they found out,” he said.

Oliver said he has been with the Skagit district for 17 months. He too was unaware any major problem with the clinic’s existence, but he knew there was no agreement in writing. “I wondered why,” he said.

With no operating agreement between the two hospital districts likely, Oliver said the Skagit district is “starting the transition to move our doctors from Oak Harbor to Anacortes.” He estimated the process will take 60 days. Patients are being notified by mail.

“We don’t want to lock the doors too quickly, but we want to get this thing done,” Oliver said. The clinic building located at 1049 SE City Beach Street is leased, which Oliver said is something “we’ve got to discuss.”

North Whidbey Physicians Clinic is staffed by Dr. Meg Sweeney and Dr. Ron Baldwin. Neither immediately returned a phone call Tuesday.

Oliver said he didn’t know how many patients the two doctors handle, but the clinic’s number of patients “rose dramatically” since 1999. Both doctors started work there in 2000, he said.

Their Oak Harbor patients can follow their doctors to Anacortes, or find a new doctor on Whidbey Island, according to Oliver.

Rhine said he has talked to Dr. Baldwin briefly about the Island Hospital District helping to keep North Whidbey Physicians operating in Oak Harbor. But there are legal questions that might make such an undertaking difficult.

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