In Our Opinion: Voters should help hospital get back on its feet

Voters should support a levy increase to fund operations at Whidbey Island Public Hospital District.

Even if we weren’t in the middle of a global pandemic, voters should support an increase in a levy that helps fund operations at Whidbey Island Public Hospital District.

If the measure does pass, the hospital should be as transparent as possible about where the money is being spent and prioritize retaining staff by providing a living wage for everyone.

District leaders are asking to increase annual property taxes from its current level of $0.078 per $1,000 of assessed value up to $0.5 per $1,000. If it passes, the owner of a $400,000 home would pay an extra $169 a year.

If passed, the proposition would add $6 million to the hospital’s $115 million annual operating budget.

It’s a big hike, percentage-wise, but it would be the only increase in the hospital district’s 57-year history. Accounting for inflation, the equivalent rate today would be 0.69 per $1,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The least we could do is provide the same level of support for our local hospital as past generations did.

The current rate is nearly the lowest among all the public hospital districts in the state.

The district, which has branded itself as WhidbeyHealth, runs the hospital in Coupeville, the ambulance service and seven clinics throughout Whidbey.

Like rural hospital districts across the nation, WhidbeyHealth has been struggling financially since before the pandemic. Reimbursements from Medicare, Medicaid and TRICARE are less than private insurance and don’t cover the actual costs of providing services. Even private insurance diverts a large percentage of money spent on health care into the pockets of those who don’t provide any actual health care.

Against this backdrop the pandemic hit. The hospital has been vital in providing testing, vaccines and treating people sick with COVID.

It’s come at a high cost, both in revenue lost and in costs increased. The hospital was forced to lay off staff members for the first time in its history. It had negative cash on hand for at least one month this year.

And the coronavirus doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

In the past, hospital officials have sometimes been opaque when it comes to providing information to the public and the media. Some officials had the attitude that the hospital isn’t the same as other governmental entities because residents provide less than 1% of the hospital revenues. Which is like the managers of a business telling the owners that it’s not their business because they don’t fork over enough money.

Things have improved in recent years under CEO Ron Telles. The PR team is very responsive. Board meetings are recorded and posted online. The hospital’s social media presence is helpful to the community.

It’s unfortunate that the board wasn’t more specific about where the levy money would go. The generalized priorities are bringing back staff, retaining staff by offering a living wage especially to support and clerical staff, recruiting providers and improving information systems.

Which sounds great, but hospital commissioners need to ensure that the money isn’t funneled to salaries or bonuses to administrators or others at the top of the pay scale.

Without the levy increase, more unhappy employees will leave. Clinics and other programs may be shut down. Services will be cut. The hospital may be forced to merge with a for-profit or nonprofit hospital system, which would mean a loss of local control, lost transparency and different priorities. Or in a worse case, the hospital could someday face closure like the 136 other rural hospitals did last year.

In the end, it’s up to the voters to help WhidbeyHealth get back on its feet.