By Steve Wehrly, Journal reporter
With a standing-room-only crowd on hand, questions and answers about Peace Island Medical Center zinged across the room at the Sept. 18 Hospital District Commission meeting.
But whether pledges by district commissioners or by PeaceHealth officials will soothe a budding apprehension about a prospective partnership between PeaceHealth, which will operate the medical center now under construction in Friday Harbor, and Franciscan Health Systems, remains to be seen.
Still, Commission Chairwoman Lenore Bayuk once again reiterated her confidence in the Peace Health representations of future care, and that the panel of elected hospital districts officials would "carefully review and respond to" a list of concerns outlined in a letter endorsed by about 300 islanders and presented to the commission at its latest meeting.
In addition, Bayuk read a letter from Sister Kathleen Pruitt, a board member of PeaceHealth and a member of the newly named board of PIMC, which said flatly, "The commitments we made to you will be honored." Twice the letter repeated, "A promise made is a promise kept."
Pruitt, who participated at the meeting via telephone conference link, added that, "This is an opportunity for Peace Health and the local community to show what can be done in working together to carry out the values and goals that we share."
Concern over contract
In recent weeks, some three hundred islanders have formed the Coalition for Health Care Transparency and Equity, which met for the first time a few hours before the commission's Sept. 18 meeting.
At the coalition meeting, Monica Harrington distributed a letter to the Hospital Commission signed by all coalition members. That letter, among other things, asked: "What written and legally binding guarantees did the hospital get from PeaceHealth that services and practices currently available through InterIsland Medical Center. . . will be available in theory and in practice at the new taxpayer-subsidized medical facility over the life of the agreement?"
The letter also raised other issues relating to end-of-life measures, funding health care not available through PeaceHealth and contractual provisions relating to withdrawal from the agreement between PeaceHealth and the Hospital District.
Loren Johnson, a retired emergency-room physician who until recently was medical director at Inter Island Medical Center, told the group of 60 at Mullis Center, "These are issues that islanders should be concerned about, but I think Peace Health's intentions are to do the right things, including not going back on their commitments to provide the IIMC services in the future. It does serve a good purpose to be vigilant, but not to antagonize an organization that has been progressive in the past. It's not the goals, it's the methods that cause unnecessary problems."
The new medical center, which will include the IIMC staff and operations when it opens in late November, is part of the PeaceHealth system of Catholic hospitals and medical clinics in Washington, Oregon and Alaska. As part of a funding plan developed with San Juan Island's hospital district, Peace Island Medical Center will receive an annual subsidy of about $1 million from property taxes collected by the district.
The Catholic identification of PeaceHealth, and the public funds dedicated to PIMC for 50 years under the contract between the district and Peace Health, has led islanders to seek assurances that reproductive health care services now offered at IIMC, such as contraception, will continue to be delivered at PIMC.
Previously, PeaceHealth announced that abortions will not be provided, and that IIMC doctors have themselves decided they will not provide that service. Exceptions are provided, according to PeaceHealth documents, "when a woman's life is in danger or in the case of an imminently lethal fetal anomaly." Emergency contraception ("Plan B") will be offered in cases of sexual assault. Vasectomies and tubal ligations are performed "when it is determined that such a procedure is medically indicated," PeaceHealth documents state.
PeaceHealth, through PIMC Chief Operations Officer Jim Barnhart, has assured local residents and the hospital commission that all services presently provided by IIMC will be continued and that the proposed partnership will not affect those policies.
The Sept. 18 commission meeting effectively served as an extension of its Aug. 22 meeting, at which Barnhart addressed concerns raised following an announcement by PeaceHealth that it was engaged in "partnership" talks with Franciscan Health Systems, an operator of hospitals and clinics in Washington, and which is owned by health care giant Catholic Health Initiatives of Denver, Colo.
Written guarantees wanted
Despite assurances, some remain skeptical. Harrington and Mt. Baker Planned Parenthood CEO Linda McCarthy want to know where in the contract these promises were made. "To be enforceable, these promises must be in the contract," said Harrington. "We want specific language in the contract on these issues," McCarthy added.
Another islander, Gay Wilmerding, said that she just wants to make sure Peace Island lives up to its commitments and that they are part of the contract.
Nancy Steiger, CEO of St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham, a PeaceHealth unit which will be collaborating extensively with PIMC, referred to a "Statement of Common Values" prepared by PeaceHealth, urging everyone to read that statement in conjunction with the contract. "We're in this partnership together with the island community," Steiger said.
Robb Miller, Executive Director of Compassion and Choices, who has worked with PeaceHealth on implementation of the Death With Dignity initiative, relaxed a little of the tension in the room by saying that he's worked very well with PeaceHealth. "Much better than with other Catholic hospitals in Seattle," Miller said, adding, "I want to say that Peace Health has always kept its end of any bargain. Our negotiations about information and referrals have always been honorable and honest."
Harrington later issued a statement confirming her insistence that contract language needs to be included in the discussion. "Contracts exist to delineate responsibilities and resolve ambiguities," she wrote. "This 50-year contract gives too much discretion to a religious institution over how our taxpayer dollars will be spent."