From dream to nightmare: Our hospital needs a cure, and soon

We current Rock dwellers need to raise our voices loudly like those of generations past.

For the first 4,000 years or so of human life on our Rock, there was no hospital to care for the sickest people here. The original indigenous residents tried using spiritual leaders, healing circles and local herbs with limited success. The Euro-Americans who arrived in the mid-19th century were desperate for doctors, nurses and care facilities but very few arrived. Most very sick folks had to be taken by boat to the mainland in search of care.

In the 20th century, especially as the island population increased after World War II, voices grew louder that Whidbey needed its own hospital. Determined groups up and down the island, most often made up of women with children, organized to raise money and make it happen.

The dream was finally realized in 1970 when Whidbey General Hospital opened in Coupeville, after decades of community organizing, fundraising and determination.

Flash forward 52 years and that dream seems to have become a nightmare. Earlier this month, the medical staff took a vote of no confidence in the hospital management. The chief executive was fired — days after himself firing four newer members of his management team. The state auditor zinged the place for inaccurate and incomplete financial statements. The hospital lost a whopping $14 million in 2020 and barely squeaked by with a 1% profit in 2021. And perhaps most worrisome, two local banks recently decided the hospital was too big a credit risk and refused to give it a bridge loan to help it pay bills until revenues from a property tax levy kick in. Yikes.

Before Whidbey General — since renamed WhidbeyHealth — opened, the Rock had few professional health care resources. As late as 1950, only half a dozen doctors had offices on the island and there were no specialists or surgeons. Birthing happened with the help of midwives at a birthing home in Coupeville that had been around for half a century. Serious health issues still required a trip off-island.

The first hospital “guild” as they were called was formed in Oak Harbor in 1957. Over time, it merged with other guilds in South and Central Whidbey. Bake sales, auctions and other fundraisers were held. Meetings were organized with federal, state and local politicians seeking government funds. “We need a hospital now!” became the rallying cry. But it still took 13 years after the first guild was formed for the hospital to be built and dedicated. There was usual Rock-style bickering over where it should be built. Oak Harbor wanted it because it’s the biggest town. South Whidbey wanted it. Greenbank wanted it. Coupeville did too.

And there were other arguments over how it should be governed until it was finally agreed that a public hospital district would be formed with five elected commissioners and the ability to raise tax revenues. When it opened, our hospital was small — just 25 beds — and it didn’t provide the higher-end specialized services that big-city hospitals did. Those services required — and often still do — a trip to America. But realization of the long-held dream became a point of enormous community pride for decades. Local construction workers volunteered their time to help build the place and lay the bricks. As soon as it opened, volunteers immediately began helping patients, nurses and doctors; they brought flowers to patient rooms and delivered between-meal snacks. They sat with patients who had no visitors.

That kind of direct community involvement has continued to the present day, and the hospital guild formed more than half a century ago still exists.

So is it any wonder that Rock dwellers are really upset with how things have turned out these days? And the current troubles are just the latest in what has been a long litany of management woes. Since 2009, four chief executive officers have been fired or pushed out. In 2011, the hospital paid $854,000 to the federal government to settle violations of a law prohibiting kickbacks to doctors for patient referrals. Management at the time called the violations “accidental,” but a complete audit blamed them on lax oversight by management.

The turnover among doctors and nurses has risen alarmingly in recent years and is well above what facilities its size usually have. One reason the local medical staff gave for its recent vote of no confidence in management was its lack of support and sometimes harsh and undeserved criticism — especially as the medical staff was dealing with the pandemic.

Now, as our dream turns nightmarish, the community that built and supported the hospital has every right to demand that the elected board of commissioners who are appointed to lead it must take strong action — and soon. It may very well be that the financial condition of the hospital is so weak that partnership with a larger system — or outright sale of the facility — needs to happen. Times change and we should not be hung up on how it’s always been. This current situation will not get better if we just wait.

And, following in the footsteps of those passionate, determined hospital guilds who made it happen a half century ago, we current Rock dwellers need to raise our voices loudly and make it clear that we also “need a hospital now!”

Harry Anderson is a retired journalist who worked for the Los Angeles Times and now lives in Central Whidbey.