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Patients protest, but doctors still leaving

The likely departure of two Oak Harbor-based physicians due to a contract glitch compelled a handful of concerned citizens to air their grievances at a meeting of the Whidbey General Hospital District’s board of directors on Monday.

A report released by the state auditor’s office in November found that the North Whidbey Physician Clinic in Oak Harbor, which is staffed by Drs. Meg Sweeney and Ron Baldwin, was operating illegally. The problem is that the clinic is owned by the Skagit County Hospital District, which would require an interdistrict agreement with Whidbey General in order to maintain local operations.

The clinic does not have such an agreement, nor does it look as though one will be hammered out. According to officials in the Skagit district, the clinic will have to close its doors soon.

Whidbey General did make the offer that both Baldwin and Sweeney become part of the hospital staff, though so far the offer has not been accepted.

“Sounds like it’s a done deal,” said Oak Harbor resident Karen Van Rooy, who, along with citizen Roland Gray, spoke at Monday’s board meeting. She added that she believes the closure of the clinic has been handled poorly.

“I don’t like the way that the hospitals have handled it,” she said in an interview. “I kind of feel that it was done back-handedly. I don’t feel that as a community we had any warning.”

She also argued that the manner in which the clinic’s patients found out about the closure, through an article in the Whidbey News-Times, was “very tacky.”

“It makes me irritated that it was a done deal before the community had a chance to respond,” said Van Rooy. “The door is slammed. The horse has been stolen from the barn.”

“I’m losing my doctor, and I’m not happy about that,” said Gray, who added that he hasn’t been able to find a new doctor.

“I tried,” he said, claiming that each clinic was turning away new patients. “I couldn’t find one.”

At the meeting, board president Peter Borden addressed the concerns of Van Rooy and others.

“I think that everyone on the board is sensitive to the special relationship that people have with their doctor, and how precious that is,” he said, adding that the district is taking steps to recruit two new doctors to the area as soon as possible.

Borden said that he is fairly certain that the doctors involved would not have been interested in any kind of agreement with Whidbey General, because such an arrangement would have meant a loss of current revenues.

“It’s been difficult to sit down and talk with them in any cooperative fashion,” Borden added. He said that, because the Whidbey district is not in the practice of subsidizing general practitioners, the clinic in question would probably not make the money it does now were it to rely solely on fees.

“From everything that I can see, they would rather remain employees of that hospital,” Borden said of the clinic’s agreement with the Skagit district.

This seemed to offer no reassurance to Van Rooy, who said that she is currently without a doctor.

“I’m going to have to start all over again,” she said about finding a new physician. “I’m just so frustrated I could cry. Every time you change doctors, you lose something, and therein lies the problem.”

Van Rooy suggested that the current situation points to an ongoing problem of keeping good doctors in a small, rural community.

“We are a rural community, and there aren’t going to be big bucks,” she said. “If that’s the case, maybe we need to start looking at that, and recruit doctors who aren’t as concerned with money.”

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