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Doctors likely to leave for Anacortes

If two Oak Harbor doctors leave town, as appears likely, the Whidbey Island Public Hospital District will waste no time trying to find replacements.

“We’ll recruit additional physicians, quickly,” said Scott Rhine, th district’s chief executive officer, on Monday.

Drs. Meg Sweeney and Ron Baldwin, who work at North Whidbey Physicians Clinic, have been contemplating their future since a state auditor’s report released in November described their clinic as illegal.

It’s not that the doctors have done anything wrong. Rather, the North Whidbey Physicians Clinic is owned by the Skagit County Hospital District. The state Auditor’s Office, citing state law, ruled it can not operated within the boundaries of the Whidbey district unless an operating agreement agreeable to both parties is adopted.

The Whidbey district board of directors declined to pursue such an agreement, thereby forcing the competing Skagit district out of Oak Harbor.

Vince Oliver, administrator of the Skagit district, said last week that plans are to close the North Whidbey Physicians Clinic within 60 days.

Dr. Baldwin said Tuesday that he and Dr. Sweeney will likely move their practice to Anacortes, although they’ll do so reluctantly. “We wish we could stay. We love Oak Harbor and our patients,” he said. “But it looks kind of inevitable that we’ll go to Anacortes.”

Whidbey’s Rhine said Monday that the local district would like Sweeney and Baldwin to stay in Oak Harbor. “We’ve offered them the same recruitment as our other doctors,” he said of incentives used to attract doctors to the island.

Generally, Whidbey loans money to doctors to open practices, but expects the money to be repaid, Rhine said. The district guarantees a certain level of business. If that level isn’t achieved, the doctors do not have to repay the loan.

According to Oliver, Drs. Sweeney and Baldwin are employees of the Skagit County Hospital District. As such, they have no loans to repay.

Rhine said Whidbey’s proposal “probably isn’t as good a deal,” as the two doctors presently enjoy. But he said it’s the best the district can offer.

Oliver said that the Skagit district is no longer using the same incentives it gave Sweeney and Baldwin when they started practicing in Oak Harbor. “We’re not in the business of subsidizing physicians any longer,” he said.

The two doctors had the choice of staying with Skagit and moving to the Anacortes area, or remaining in Oak Harbor in association with the Whidbey district.

“I don’t know what their next move is going to be,” said Rhine on Monday.

But by Tuesday, Baldwin seemed resigned that he and Sweeney will be moving to Anacortes. He said the issues are complex, and include more than financial incentives. A big issue to the doctors is having other family physicians available to “cover” for them when they’re gone. In Anacortes, there are other similar doctors working for Skagit Hospital District, Baldwin said.

There are no other “family physicians” in Oak Harbor or Coupeville. Baldwin said he and Sweeney operate “an old fashioned practice — we deliver babies and take care of adults.” If they quit working for the Skagit district, they would lose their present “cover” offered by Anacortes doctors.

Baldwin said he doesn’t know when they will move or where they will be located, but they’ll let their patients know as soon as possible.

Peter Borden, president of the Whidbey Island Hospital District’s board of directors, issued a statement this week explaining the board’s position. What the district objects to, he said, “is the subsidization of these two physicians by another public (Skagit) hospital taxing district.” He added that allowing a competing hospital district to continue to operate in the Whidbey district only “encourages an escalation of health care costs.” (The entire statement can be found on page 4 of today’s Whidbey News-Times.)

If Drs. Sweeney and Baldwin leave Oak Harbor, Borden said, “It is our commitment to the community to provide both access and choice for medical and hospital services, and we will recruit additional physicians to fill this void.”

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