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'It’s another tool in the tool box': Orcas Island doctors weigh in on San Juan Island’s PeaceHealth hospital

A preliminary rendering of the southwest view of the proposed Peace Island Medical Center. - Courtesy Mahlum Architects
A preliminary rendering of the southwest view of the proposed Peace Island Medical Center.
— image credit: Courtesy Mahlum Architects

By COLLEEN SMITH ARMSTRONG
The Islands' Sounder

When PeaceHealth cuts the ribbon on its San Juan Island hospital in the summer of 2012, county residents will have a new option for health care.

“It’s not the same kind of hospital as Skagit, Island or St. Joe’s. So, for some patients it will be very appropriate to send them, but some will need hospitalization on the mainland,” said Dr. Anthony Giefer of Orcas Medical Center.

“For the services they can provide at that hospital, it opens up tremendous opportunity and choice for people who prefer that to the mainland.”

PeaceHealth is a Washington-based not-for-profit health care system serving several rural and urban communities in Washington, Oregon and Alaska for more than a century. In addition to operating St. Joseph’s Hospital in Bellingham, it runs three Northwest critical access hospitals in communities considered either small and/or remote.

When the new hospital opens, the current Inter Island Medical Center on Spring Street will close. The publicly elected hospital district commission will be directly responsible for San Juan EMS; an oversight committee appointed by PeaceHealth will be directly responsible for the medical center.

PeaceHealth will be responsible for the financial operations of the medical center, but will receive more than $1 million a year — about $60 million over the life of the contract — in local property tax revenues to subsidize health care.

In July 2009, PeaceHealth signed a purchase agreement on a 22-acre site on which the new medical center will be built. Located in the 100 block of San Juan Valley Road, the property borders Friday Harbor Airport and is just minutes from downtown Friday Harbor. When completed, Peace Island Medical Center will include an expanded primary care and specialty clinic, an expanded diagnostic services center, a 24-hour emergency room and a 10-bed critical access hospital.

PeaceHealth representatives have been keeping island doctors apprised of the project. Last month, Dr. David Shinstrom of Orcas Family Health Center and Dr. David Russell of Orcas Island Family Medicine attended a meeting where they learned more about the hospital and offered feedback.

“I think it has potential to be a great idea, but it sounds like they aren’t all that clear about the services they are offering. I think it needs more fleshing out,” said Shinstrom, who has been talking with PeaceHealth for five years about the project. “For outpatient procedures, it will be much more beneficial for people to go to Friday Harbor than off-island.”

Shinstrom is also hoping specialty doctors will travel to the new hospital periodically.

Russell said he is happy about the facility, but thinks it will require a shift in islanders’ perspectives. He said many people make off-island doctor appointments and include shopping and other errands as part of their day.

“It’s nice to have that resource for people here,” he said. “It will be about people thinking about going to Friday Harbor instead. I think it will take some selling on their part.”

Orcas Island Fire Chief Mike Harris is looking forward to sending EMS patients, who need services like an X-ray, to Peace Island Medical Center.

“The more that facility increases its potential to take care of patients, the more patients we can send over there without sending them to the mainland,” he said. “I am looking forward to sending patients who need an X-ray or a treatment that can wait. So it’s another tool for us to get care for our patients after-hours and on weekends.”

He also hopes to make a formal agreement with Island Air to fly patients from Orcas to Friday Harbor.

“If something doesn’t justify a flight to a mainland, it might justify a flight to San Juan Island,” he said. “No matter how it turns out, it will help us. It’s another tool in the tool box.”

The San Juan Island Community Foundation’s Critical Needs Task Force is looking at transportation options between the islands. Charles Anderson, chairman of the San Juan Community Hospital Committee, said ideas include a high speed passenger-only ferry and a bus system.

“It has no known time frame, it’s just a planning concept at this point,” Anderson said. “A transportation system like that would be a real boon for medical care – as well as other things – between the islands.”

Mahlum Architects is expected to complete the design for Peace Island Medical Center by January. Permitting should be done by April, and construction, overseen by Seattle-based Howard S. Wright Constructors, is expected to be finished by July 2012, with the first patient being admitted that August.

The hospital site will also use on-site wetlands to control the flow of stormwater. It will feature a wetland restoration project, public trails, and healing gardens.

All told, the project will cost $32 million; one-third is covered by philanthropy, the rest by PeaceHealth. Anderson said at a public hearing on July 15 that the project will generate $500,000 in permit fees, $4 million paid to local contractors, $10 million in first-year revenue, and will create 24 new full-time-equivalent jobs and an annual payroll of $4 million.

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