Lopez public hospital district could be on April ballot

The creation of a Lopez Island public hospital district could be up to a vote in the April 25 election.

“We are so thankful the Lopez community has shown us how important this is to them,” said Christa Campbell, vice chair of the Catherine Washburn Medical Association, who presented the measure’s petition to San Juan County Council on Jan. 10.

The association needed 187 signatures to request the measure to be placed on the ballot, but, instead, collected 505 valid signatures in 12 days, said Campbell.

In mid-September, Island Hospital officials reported the service contract to run the Lopez Island Medical Clinic will end on June 30. Island Hospital has operated the clinic since the 1990s, while the Catherine Washburn Medical Association has owned the building since the 1970s.

“If we stayed in a contractual agreement with Island Hospital, we would still need outside funding eventually because health care costs are continuing to go up and reimbursements are continuing to go down or be redistributed,” Campbell told The Journal.

If the measure to create a public hospital district is passed, the district can request a maximum of $.75 per $1,000 of assessed Lopez property, Lauren Stephens, a board member of the association, told the council. This would cost the owner of a $392,000 house, an additional $294 a year. The district could collect a maximum of $800,000 a year from all of the property on Lopez, based on a 2014 property assessment, said Stephens.

Clinic partner negotiations haven’t started, leaving the amount needed for operations, unclear. The tax levy will most likely be set to the maximum taxable amount on the ballot, said Campbell, so funds aren’t restricted. The final percentage would be determined by the district’s board, in the fall.

The short notice, from Island Hospital to sever the contract, created urgency to secure a measure on the April ballot to collect taxes in 2018, instead of the next election in August to collect in 2019.

“That’s why it seems rushed, by some,” said Stephens.

If the measure passes in April, the clinic will still be without supplemental funds for six months. The association has reserved emergency funds for this period, said Campbell.

The association requested the district have five commissioners with six-year, staggered terms. If council approves the measure to be on the ballot, the election office will immediately hold a special filing period for the district’s candidates, so they will be on the April ballot as well.

This would be the second public hospital district in the county and only cover Lopez Island.

The Lopez Medical Clinic currently receives a federal reimbursement of about $200, per patient, due to two factors — its designation as a rural health care clinic and its association with a hospital with less than 50 beds. When the Island Hospital contract ends, so do these designations, explained Campbell to council. Without the designations, the clinic would receive about $80 in reimbursements, per person, which could cost the clinic more than $300,000 a year, said Campbell.

Campbell told The Journal, the clinic’s officials will apply for rural health care status, so the designation is tied to the clinic, not a partner, within the next few months.

The association has found two potential clinic partners that have less than 50 hospital beds, and one that does not. Without an association with a hospital with less than 50 beds, the reimbursement rate would be lower.

Transferring electronic medical records to a new partner’s system could cost up to $400,000 as well, said Campbell.

Campbell and Stephens will return to the Jan. 24 council meeting to give a more detailed presentation. A Feb. 14 hearing is set in the council’s meeting room in Friday Harbor, where the public can voice their opinion about the district. Council will determine whether it will be added to the ballot at the end of that meeting.

The association will hold the first of several public discussions about the hospital district from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m., Jan. 22 at the Lopez Center for Community and the Arts.

“It’s our goal to educate the community about the partner search and for them to be able to ask questions and express concerns,” said Campbell.

Lopez public hospital district could be on April ballot