EYE ON OLYMPIA: Drone rules, Olympic Medical Center reimbursement measures pass both houses of Legislature

By Jeremy Schwartz
Peninsula Daily News

OLYMPIA — Bills supported by North Olympic Peninsula legislators governing unmanned aerial vehicle use by state agencies and increasing Medicaid reimbursements for Olympic Medical Center to $1 million more annually have passed both chambers of the state Legislature.

The full state House of Representatives and Senate floor votes came last week as legislators work to wrap up the 60-day 2014 legislative session by Thursday.

“All the talk is not to [extend the session],” said state Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam.

Hargrove said Friday that the House companion of a Senate bill he introduced that would require state or local law enforcement agencies obtain a warrant before using unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, for surveillance passed 46-1 in the Senate on Friday.

Agencies still could use drones in emergency situations, fire protection, and wildlife and environmental research under the bill, Hargrove explained, though both state and local law enforcement would have to get approval from their respective governing body to purchase drones.

The bill, EHB 2789, passed 83-15 in the House on Feb. 17 with Hargrove’s 24th District colleagues, state reps. Steve Tharinger and Kevin Van De Wege, both Sequim Democrats, voting in favor.

The 24th Legislative District comprises Clallam and Jefferson counties and a portion of Grays Harbor County.

The bill, which now returns to the House so minor changes made in the Senate can be agreed upon, mirrors a proposal Hargrove introduced at the beginning of the session after being approached about proposing such legislation by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.

“The House bill passed first, so we just decided to use that vehicle,” Hargrove said.

Hargrove said earlier this session that he has had concerns over the issue of drones and privacy for a few years.

Friday also saw unanimous House approval of a Senate bill that would increase the amount certain rural hospitals, such as Olympic Medical Center, get reimbursed from Medicaid for outpatient services.

The bill, co-sponsored by Hargrove in the Senate, passed its chamber of origin 47-1 Feb. 17.

“It bodes well for its success that it had such a positive vote in the House,” Rep. Tharinger said Saturday.

The bill now returns to the Senate so minor changes made in the House can be agreed upon in the proposed legislation’s chamber of origin, Tharinger explained.

The bill would raise outpatient Medicaid reimbursement rates for Olympic Medical Center, referred to as a “sole community hospital,” from 55 percent to about 70 percent, which would mean a $1 million annual reimbursement increase for the Port-Angeles-based hospital, CEO Eric Lewis has said.

Tharinger said the bill as written would only apply to Olympic Medical Center given its financial situation and the fact it’s publicly run, though it could apply to the currently private nonprofit Grays Harbor Community Hospital in Aberdeen were it to convert to a public hospital.

Other sole community hospitals in the state include facilities in Centralia and Moses Lake.

Forks Community Hospital and Jefferson Healthcare are defined as critical access hospitals and now get 101 percent of outpatient costs reimbursed through Medicaid, a state-run program for low-income people with half funded by the state and half funded by the federal government.

In an interview earlier this year, Lewis said about 12 percent of Olympic Medical Center patients were on Medicaid in 2013, adding that about 10,000 people throughout Clallam County use the program.

Tharinger was able to secure $100,000 per year for Medicaid outpatient reimbursement for Olympic Medical Center in the 2013-2015 budget as a temporary proviso after a bill he introduced last session to raise reimbursement rates failed to gain traction.

Tharinger said the stronger support for a permanent solution through legislation likely came from working to inform other legislators about the budgetary challenges rural hospitals such as Olympic Medical Center are facing.

“Just educating them on the issue,” Tharinger said.

When reached by phone Saturday, Rep. Van De Wege said he could not comment on legislative matters because he was on duty as a firefighter/paramedic with Clallam County Fire District No. 3.

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Reporter Jeremy Schwartz can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5074, or at jschwartz@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: March 09. 2014 7:27PM
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