Sitka revisiting idea of consolidating hospital services

SEARHC CEO Charles Clement tells Assembly he’s in conversation with Sitka Community Hospital CEO Rob Allen about how the two institutions can share resources in the future. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)
SEARHC CEO Charles Clement tells Assembly he’s in conversation with Sitka Community Hospital CEO Rob Allen about how the two institutions can share resources in the future. (Photo by Emily Kwong/KCAW)

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For decades, the question of whether Sitka can afford two hospitals has percolated, with little success at consolidating services. That era may be coming to a close. Last week, the Assembly entertained a motion from Charles Clement, CEO of the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC) to renew talks with Sitka Community Hospital about collaborating on medical services. This raised alarm bells for some citizens.

 Of the letter, he told the Assembly, “I don’t want to belabor and read it back to you again, but it really was an attempt to take a stab at trying to figure out, ‘How do we have this conversation in about hospitals and healthcare and service delivery in Sitka?’”

Sitka’s tale of two hospitals stretches back to World War II. Mt. Edgecumbe Hospital was built in the 1940s, while the city opened Sitka Community Hospital in 1956. And between the two facilities, Sitka has two emergency rooms, two obstetrics facilities, and two physical therapy centers, among other duplicate services.

In his letter, Clement said that given the state’s financial crisis – and anticipated cuts to healthcare reimbursement – sustaining both hospitals may not be practical. “Change is coming. And I really am a firm believer that we have every opportunity to guide that change where we’d like it to go,” he said.

Clement has been meeting monthly with Sitka Community Hospital CEO Rob Allen. The hospitals have already experimented with sharing laboratory space and a dietician, which Allen previously told KCAW will save Sitka Community Hospital $50,000.

To that end, Clement’s letter suggested that SEARHC draw up a management proposal for the consolidation of services between the two hospitals and present it to the Assembly.

The idea was met with cautious optimism from members of the Assembly. Matthew Hunter said, “There’s a lot of nervousness amongst our healthcare community on both sides of our bridge and it’s been going on for years. I see this as a fresh opportunity to have a collaborative effort.”

Yet staff with Sitka Community Hospital worried that the motion – which clearly said that SEARCH would draw up the management proposal – wasn’t in the spirit of collaboration. Steve Hartford, Director of Operations, said, “[A management proposal] seems a little narrowly focused to us, as opposed to working together to set up a structure for a community discussion.”

Clement responded that it was always SEARHC’s intent to include Sitka Community Hospital in the discussion. But speaking as members of the public, Sitka Community Hospital staff past and present, didn’t seem convinced. They spoke about a legacy of mistrust between the two hospitals and worried that the letter hinted a takeover was on the horizon.

Lee Bennett: The employees of the hospital were notified late Friday afternoon (02-19-16), like after 4pm, that this letter was coming to the Assembly so I imagine there’s a lot of employees who don’t know about this yet. – Lee Bennett, former CFO of Sitka Community Hospital

Anne Wilkinson: In 2013, SEARHC approached then-CEO Hugh Hallgren and got him into a process that was very similar to this, where you consolidate the hospitals. That means you close one and move to the other one. -Ann Wilkinson, former Board President of Sitka Community Hospital

Cynthia Dennis: I have also been through a couple of these process and to me this sounds like a bid to takeover.

Those are the voices of Lee Bennett, former CFO, Ann Wilkinson, former Sitka Community Hospital Board president, and Cynthia Dennis, a current CRNA.

CEO Rob Allen was traveling and not present at the meeting. But speaking on his behalf, Harford said Allen supported the proposal as a way to get the thorny tumbleweed that is this particular topic rolling.

The Assembly agreed.  Steven Eisenbeisz said, “This can either go really, really well or not so well. And I know there’s anxiety in the community about it, so I’m excited to see what both entities come up with and so we reduce our overlapping services in Sitka.”

In the end, the Assembly members penciled some new words into the motion, specifying that SEARHC and Sitka Community Hospital would draft a management proposal and the proposal had to be collaborative.  The motion then passed unanimously. In the future, should the two hospitals present an ordinance for consolidation to the Assembly, it would require two readings to take effect.

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