By Rob Ollikainen
Peninsula Daily News
Want more top stories? Sign up here for daily or weekly newsletters with our top news.
CEO Eric Lewis on Wednesday said Tharinger, D-Sequim, was instrumental in the passage of a bill that increases Medicaid payments to large rural hospitals like OMC from 55 percent of cost to 70 percent of cost.
Co-sponsored by state Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, and backed by state Rep. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, the “sole community hospital” bill was approved with bipartisan support. It was signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee on March 19.
“It really was a Team 24 — 24th Legislative district — effort,” Tharinger said at the OMC commissioners’ meeting.
Tharinger, Van De Wege and Hargrove represent the 24th District, which covers the North Olympic Peninsula and part of Grays Harbor County.
For OMC, the added Medicaid payments will amount to about $1 million per year.
“I think this reimbursement really stabilizes Olympic Medical Center and helps us — we have 1,150 employees — really helps maintain local jobs and local services,” Lewis said.
The law recognizes sole community hospitals as public institutions with more than 25 beds that have 24-hour surgery coverage.
Medicaid already pays 100 percent of cost to “critical access” hospitals with 25 beds or fewer.
“It’s not going to solve all the problems,” Tharinger said of the new law.
“It helps stabilize, I think, some of the costs. As you know, the payor mix here is challenging in rural Washington, and the federal government keeps ratcheting down those reimbursement rates.
“But I think it’s important for us to make the case — and we were able to make the case — in Olympia that Olympic Medical Center is the pillar that health care services hang from here on the north Peninsula.
“And if that pillar goes away, we lose health care for this community.”
Tharinger, Van De Wege and Hargrove laid the groundwork for the bill in 2013 by communicating the unique challenges of rural heath care to other legislators, Lewis said.
“There was a lot of hard work done the first year,” he added.
“We couldn’t get (the bill) out of the committees, as you remember, but that groundwork I think was critical.”
OMC partnered with its labor unions — SEIU 1199 and UFCW 21 — and the broader community to lobby for the legislation.
“Representative government works, but we have to communicate,” Lewis said.
“And I think all of our elected officials really got a lot of positive community feedback,” he added.
“And it started, I think, back in 2008 when our community increased our tax levy to support the hospital. That made a big impression in Olympia. The local residents really wanted a locally-owned and controlled hospital.”
Thirty-nine of the 43 rural hospitals in the state are critical access, including Jefferson Healthcare and Forks Community Hospital on the Peninsula.
Private nonprofit Grays Harbor Community Hospital in Aberdeen would earn sole community status if it becomes public, as would Providence Centralia and Samaritan Healthcare in Moses Lake.
OMC officials have said the Medicaid payment protection will help offset a $3.5 million-per-year cut in federal Medicare reimbursement.
More than three-fourths of OMC patients are insured through Medicare or Medicaid.
“It took a few years for us to get folks to understand and trust our message and to realize that Olympic Medical Center, as a rural sole community hospital, is different than the I-5 hospitals, the big urban hospitals, in that health care is delivered differently here,” Tharinger said.
Board Chairman Jim Leskinovitch thanked Tharinger for his “extensive work” on the sole community hospital bill.
Added Lewis: “I can tell you Representative Tharinger, Representative Van De Wege and Senator Hargrove all worked really hard, but Steve really deserves our extra-special thanks.”
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 5072, or at rollikainen@peninsula dailynews.com.