EDITORIAL Dec. 5, 2001 Retaining doctors is our top priority

The Whidbey Island Public Hospital District should show a bit more flexibility and make a concerted effort to retain the services of two physicians, Dr. Meg Sweeney and Dr. Ron Baldwin.

As the situation now stands, a community that is already short of doctors faces the prospect of losing two good ones because of a bureaucratic nightmare.

A sharp-eyed state auditor noticed that the Skagit County Public Hospital District has been operating the North Whidbey Physicians Clinic, comprised of Drs. Sweeney and Baldwin. This is forbidden, because Oak Harbor is within the boundaries of the Island County Public Hospital District. The clinic could continue to operate only if an agreement between the two districts could be worked out. It’s a territorial thing.

To date, the Whidbey Island Public Hospital District has declined to seriously negotiate with the Skagit District to find a way to keep the doctors in Oak Harbor. As a result, Skagit has announced the North Whidbey clinic will close in about 60 days.

The elected board of the Whidbey district made a “logical” decision not to pursue negotiations. The two districts are after the same business in Oak Harbor, and Whidbey feels Skagit should butt out. Furthermore, Skagit is paying the salaries of the two doctors, which is something Whidbey does not do for the doctors in its clinics. Whidbey offers loans to help new doctors get started, but expects those loans to be paid back. Accepting the North Whidbey Physicians Clinic into the Whidbey fold might be unfair to doctors in existing Whidbey clinics. Therefore, Whidbey did not pursue negotiations to keep the clinic open.

Instead, Drs. Sweeney and Baldwin were told they could operate under the Whidbey umbrella, if they accept the same terms as other doctors. At this writing the two doctors are not inclined to accept the offer. We can sympathize with their dilemma. They’ve spent two years building thriving practices under the Skagit operating agreement, but now they have to go into business for themselves and pay off loans offered by Whidbey. They are more likely to keep things simple, move to Anacortes in Skagit County, and hope their Oak Harbor patients follow them there.

The Whidbey district’s position is, as we said, “logical,” but it fails to take into account the feelings and needs of several thousand North Whidbey patients of Drs. Sweeney and Baldwin. The needs of patients should be the foremost concern of the hospital district, and the patients want their doctors to remain in Oak Harbor.

Patients and others concerned about health care in Oak Harbor should encourage the Whidbey Island Hospital District board to do more to ensure the continues presence of Drs. Sweeney and Baldwin. They might have to cut them a special deal, but this is a special circumstance brought about by the state’s complex healthcare laws and a sharp-eyed auditor. We’re sure the other Whidbey doctors and the public would understand.

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