Docs won't come here

Whidbey General Hospital hopes to have two new internal medicine specialists and a family practitioner in the Oak Harbor area by mid- to late summer.

Hospital Administrator Scott Rhine said there is an undeniable need in the city for more doctors, but a shortfall in Medicaid and other government funding for medicine has made it difficult to attract physicians to the area.

The hospital had originally hoped to have the new doctors by this spring. But the problem, Rhine said, is that physicians in Western Washington are reimbursed for Medicare and other programs at a lower rate than in other parts of the nation.

“We’re being penalized for our efficiencies,” Rhine said. He is meeting with an aide for Sen. Maria Cantwell today to discuss the issue.

The best evidence of the doctor shortage, Rhine said, is the “dramatic increase” in the number of patients at the hospital’s emergency room. He said people who can’t get in to see doctors often go to the ER instead.

In fact, Rhine said the hospital will be scheduling two doctors in the ER for weekends shifts for the first time.

Rhine said the hospital currently has four possible candidates for the three open doctor spots. The addition of three doctors, he said, will help fill a void left by family physicians Ron Baldwin and Meg Sweeney, as well as Coupeville internist Betsy VanLobensels.

Baldwin and Sweeney, who worked for Skagit County’s Island Hospital, left Oak Harbor after a state audit found they were violating state rules by working for one hospital district in another hospital district’s territory. They moved to an Anacortes office, where many Whidbey Island residents travel to see the doctors.

Rhine said the hospital is looking at leasing or buying Baldwin and Sweeney’s office at the end of Dock Street for a possible office for the two new internists.

According to Rhine, the need for internists on North Whidbey is great. An internal medicine specialist is a physician that specializes in treating medical conditions, particularly chronic diseases, in the adult and elderly population. A growing elderly population in Oak Harbor means a growing demand for internal medicine.

After internist VanLobensels moved to Wenatchee in January, Rhine said that left only one internet medicine specialist — who has “a very limited practice” — in the area.

Also, Rhine said the hospital is working with Whidbey Community Physicians to recruit a new family practitioner.

The hospital pays recruitment fees and helps new doctors by guaranteeing a certain income over a period of time, usually two years. The hospital gives doctors “advances” to help them set up practices. The doctors usually start paying the hospital back by the end of the second year.

Other hospital districts hire doctors and pay them a regular salary. Rhine said this was the issue with Baldwin and Sweeney. They were working for Island Hospital and declines Whidbey General Hospital’s offer to continue their practice in Oak Harbor on their own.

“They preferred an employment relationship,” Rhine said.

While Rhine said hiring doctors outright is a more expensive way to go for hospitals, but he said the day may come when Whidbey General Hospital may have to consider employing doctors at community clinics.

“Someday, it may be the only way to attract physicians,” he said.

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